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Under His Skin
A brilliant scientist out to save the world.
A jaded agent looking to save the one he lost.
And a conspiracy that spans oceans, reaching into the deepest parts of American national security.
Lennon is a genius. He’s devoted his energy and his time to designing products to save lives. He’s gotten rich doing it, too. This time he’s created something to revolutionize war, crime, and policing – a bullet that heals. He’s on top of the world and the one thing he needs is someone to share it with. The one he loved disappeared without a trace years ago, and until he gets closure he can’t commit.
Ben is an agent with an agency so secretive for years people didn’t know it existed. He screwed up years ago and fell in love with the man he was supposed to be guarding. Now his lost love is in danger again. He’s developed a product bad actors all over the world will want to get their hands on. When Ben’s superiors order him back to Lennon’s side, he goes without hesitation. There’s only one catch – Lennon can’t know he’s there.
When one of those bad actors strikes, all the rules go out the window. Can Lennon overcome his mistrust once he knows the truth about Ben? When the enemy turns up the heat, will Ben manage to save Lennon from people who want him to kill?
Allow us to introduce you to
J. V. Speyer has lived in upstate New York and rural Catalonia before settling in the greater Boston area. She has worked in archaeology, security, accountancy, finance, and non-profit management. She currently lives just south of Boston in a house old enough to remember when her town was a tavern community with a farming problem. (No, really. John Adams complained about it. A lot.)
When not writing, J. V. enjoys watching baseball and seeking out all of New England’s creepiest spots. Her Spawn has turned her into a hockey enthusiast. She can be bribed with gin, tequila, and cats.
Ben checked his look in the mirror. Everyone had their “thing,” something that would throw the entire meeting or experience off for them, and there was nothing that could rescue it. For Ben, it was talking to someone who had food stuck in their teeth. Anyone reporting to him knew that they needed to clean their teeth before stopping in for a meeting.
Ben’s commanding officer, Agent Dickinson, had a thing about people’s ties. They had to be perfectly straight and not askew in any way. Ben could remember coming out of a fight with a spy from a drug cartel, trying to make an immediate report to Agent Dickinson, and getting dressed down because his tie was crooked. Ben had been bleeding from a stab wound at the time. Agent Dickinson had been so distracted by the messy tie he couldn’t see the blood.
Ben wasn’t bleeding now. He had no legitimate excuse to be slovenly. He straightened his tie and brushed a few pieces of lint from the jacket as well. Then he headed out to go and face Agent Dickinson.
Dickinson waited for him in his office. A giant American flag stood behind him. Dickinson wasn’t usually that guy. They all knew where they were and who they were working for; they didn’t need to be clubbed over the head with it every time they walked into a room. The ever-present flags had come in with the new administration. Every room had to have a flag now. It was a mandate. Every room had to have a flag, and every lapel had to have a flag pin. Apparently the new president thought people would get confused without them.
“Siddown, Kellogg.” Dickinson drummed his fingertips on the desk for a moment and then he sighed. “It looks like we’ve got a burgeoning situation in Boston.”
Ben felt a twinge in his heart, but he ignored it. An agent wasn’t supposed to get twinges in his heart. An agent shouldn’t have felt anything for someone in his charge to begin with. Besides, Lennon had almost certainly moved on a long time ago. He probably had a movie star partner now. Maybe he’d married a model. Maybe they stood around looking gorgeous together on the red carpet.
“Kellogg!” Dickinson slapped his hand on his desk, making Ben jump. “You paying attention or you going to sit there and gather wool on the taxpayers’ dime?”
“Sorry sir.” Ben straightened up and forced his brain to focus. “Just trying to think of which Boston situation you could be referring to.”
Dickinson acknowledged Ben’s point with an incline of his head. “That place always was a hotbed of sedition. I’m talking about the ongoing operation at Interior, Inc.”
Ben had been trained to show no reaction to any stimuli, so he was able to keep his face neutral and relaxed when his supervisor mentioned Lennon’s company. Ben had very carefully not followed the company’s progress, at least not where anyone could track him. He didn’t want to get bitter toward the Agency. “I’ve been kept in the dark about the operation at Interior, sir.”
“And for good reason, too. You’ve been kept in the dark because you couldn’t keep it in your pants, and don’t think I’ve forgotten that.” Dickinson waved a finger at Ben. “But it’s been a good decade since then. With any luck, the threat can be neutralized without any issues at all. No one will ever need to know you were involved.”
Ben couldn’t help but close his eyes at that. He didn’t have any choice about it, of course. An agent couldn’t choose his assignments. It seemed egregiously cruel to put him on an assignment this close to Lennon and not let him speak to or see his old lover, but the Agency didn’t choose its assignments for the agents’ benefit.
He opened his eyes again. He would do what he had to. He knew Dickinson wouldn’t ask it of him lightly. “Okay. What’s the threat and what’s behind it?”
Dickinson nodded once, a little bit of grudging pride showing through in the gleam of his eyes. “You know what Interior does, correct?”
He hadn’t designed the paralytic as a weapon. Sure, it could be used that way, but he hadn’t designed it as such. He’d intended for it to be used on people who were a danger to themselves and others, as a way to immediately stop people having a psychotic break without causing them harm or risking serious side effects. He’d hoped that it could be used as a non-lethal tool by law enforcement and emergency medical staff.
He hadn’t expected to have to jab it into someone during a fight.
In his own visions for the product, he’d seen competent medical staff immediately available to tend to the patient. The individual would be immediately cared for and would get the help that they obviously needed when the bots wore off. Lennon had left Jamal lying on the cool, damp ground, on a road that was all but abandoned at this time of year.
Lennon had worked for his entire career to minimize harm as far as possible. He’d even carried out Jamal’s phone battery, for crying out loud, just in case. He’d walked away from Jamal himself without a backwards glance, uncaring about the man’s very human life.
Lennon was a monster.
Suck it up, buttercup. His own voice snarled at him from the back of his mind. Jamal would have killed you if he had to. And he might have been friendly when you met, but that would have changed in a heartbeat if the job requirements shifted. This isn’t a lab. This isn’t a board room. This is real life, this is your life, and if you want to keep it, you’ll keep going.
He saw a sign for West Ossippee and followed it. The town couldn’t be that far away, and the road signs were well marked. Lennon wasn’t an expert, but he didn’t think that he had a lot of daylight left and he wanted to be somewhere much warmer before the sun went down.
He trudged on for about an hour. The damp roads had some charm, he supposed, but that charm fell away when the chill settled into his bones. He hadn’t dressed for the weather. He’d dressed for the camera. He doubted that he looked good anymore, not after a fight and with his hair crusted in blood.
His feet, encased in “fashion boots,” throbbed. He would declare war on fashion boots when he got back to Boston. Fashion boots and any other form of shoe that wasn’t useful as well as attractive. There was no reason shoes worn to work shouldn’t be shoes one could also wear to escape from a kidnapper, damn it.
However useless his shoes were, or how sore his feet were, they carried him into West Ossippee, New Hampshire, an hour and a half after he left the Gas and Go. He staggered until he found the Panera Bread, a comparatively new facility with cheery lighting and a manager on duty who looked friendly and calm.
Lennon hesitated. Would the Panera be safe? Or would the manager be in cahoots with Jamal or his client? He blinked and forced the paranoia away. If the manager had been conspiring with the bad guys, they’d have arranged the transfer there. He let himself into the restaurant and walked up to the bearded man.
The manager’s eyes bulged when he saw the blood on Lennon’s shirt and jacket. “Sir, are you okay?”
“I’ve had worse,” he said. He wasn’t lying. “Trust me, it’s not as bad as it probably seems. Listen, can I borrow your phone? Mine was broken in the fight and I really need my friend to come and get me.”
Ben wandered through the living space while Lennon worked. He’d made the suggestion to stay here in the heat of the moment, but he hadn’t thought this through. He should have stuck with Townsend, if only to spare himself.
Lennon returned. “So. What can I get you?”
“I’m good, actually.” Ben forced a little smile. “The thing about this job is you wind up not needing a lot in the way of creature comforts, you know?”
“I guess.” Lennon shrugged. “I’m just… I’m sorry to have put you in an awkward situation back in the bar.” He looked away. “I’m still angry about the whole situation. I’m angry about getting kidnapped. I’m angry about finding out that the goddamn NSA has been following me around since I was old enough to vote. I’m angry someone seems to think that I’m government property.”
“That’s Townsend.” Ben sprawled out in one of the living room chairs. “He’s an Agency guy, through and through.”
“I can see that.” Lennon made a face. “Anyway, while I’m angry about all of those things, and about being treated like my head’s been stuffed with wool, none of that is really your fault.”
“You’ve got plenty of reasons to be angry with me.” Ben watched as Lennon sat gingerly on the other chair.
“I do.” Lennon fussed with the edge of his vest. “And I am. But I’m also glad you’re alive, whatever your name is.”
Ben blinked slowly. “You are?” he said, after digesting that for a moment.
“I am.” Lennon nodded once. “I’m still processing everything, but I think I’m going to be a little more hung up on the whole ‘bad guys trying to kill me’ thing than anything else. But Ben, or Greg, or whatever, I sincerely mourned you. I’ve been grieving for ten years. You want to know what my first major charitable gift was? Like not the usual donations, but my first big gift?”
Ben sat up a little straighter. “What was it?”
“I endowed a scholarship at MIT. The Greg Nelson Memorial Scholarship, for students who’d previously served in the military.”
Tears sprang to Ben’s eyes. “That part was true.” He swallowed. “I got recruited to the Agency after an injury in Iraq. Pretty much everything was true.” He looked down. “The name was fake, the age was fake, and yeah, I was sent to MIT to be your friend and keep you safe. Everything else was real, Lennon.”
Lennon reached across the short distance between their chairs and put a hand on his. “Thank you.” A tear or two leaked out from his eyes, but his hand was warm and didn’t shake at all. “I needed to know that. I’m still… I don’t know how to feel, yet. But I never stopped loving you.”
Lennon got up and headed off to his room. Ben watched him go. For the first time since he came back to Boston, he felt oddly at peace.
Meet J.V. Speyers on a more personal level!
1. How long have you been writing romance?
I’ve been writing romance for about five years, although I’ve only been published in romance for three. A good friend, who is an English teacher, read some of my speculative fiction and kindly told me I was writing romance in a horror / urban fantasy / science fiction setting. It was a very eye-opening experience, and I set out to learn all I could about the genre. (I’m still learning.)
2. What was your motivation to begin writing?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing and telling stories. They’ve just always been there. I started trying to publish when someone (and yes, I know who) told my daughter that all I did all day was sit around and argue with people on the Internet. I wanted to prove to her that I was doing more than arguing all day.
3. Who influenced your writing career?
From a literary standpoint? Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen, Sera Gamble, H. P. Lovecraft. (I know Lovecraft is not a good guy and would probably hate me if he met me, but he’s dead so his opinion doesn’t count anymore. I grew up reading his stuff with my dad, so it still had a huge influence on me.)
4. What romance genre do you write?
I write mostly romantic suspense and paranormal romance, sometimes at the same time. I’ve done some contemporary, some sci-fi, and some fantasy. Basically I’ll write almost anything as long as the story excites me, but my real bread-and-butter tends to involve mystery or suspense. I love the high-stakes feel of a good suspense novel, the adrenaline and danger.
5. What heat factor do you write? How many chili peppers on a scale from 1 being mild to 5 being scorching hot.
It depends on my mood and the story. Building Up to Love and Under His Skin are probably about a 4, while the Hunter series is more of a 3 just because of the way the story is structured. A deeply sensual or graphically sexual scene in those books would be jarring, where there’s more room for sex in some of my other work.
6. How many books have you written so far?
15 are published, I’ve got two in the edits stage, and one deep in a digital trunk that will never see the light of day. But it’s finished!
7. Have you written any series, and if so, how many?
I’m in the middle of two series – Hunter and Rites. The third book of Hunter is with the editor right now, and the second book of Rites is about 2/3 of the way through.
8. Are you a plotter or a pants-er?
I’m a plotter, because I have to be. I have ADHD, and the only way I’m able to get anything done is to have a routine and know what I’m supposed to be doing before I start doing it. I naturally want to be a pantser, but I’d still be writing 100 word fanfic drabbles if I let myself get away with that. I need the road map. (There’s nothing wrong with fanfic, or flash fiction, but the stories I wanted to tell were longer.)
9. Describe your writing space.
I work in my bedroom. In my bed. It’s the only place I have to sit in the entire house. I have two cats who will come and inform me when it’s time to take a break, either by sitting on the keyboard or on my chest, blocking my view of the screen. Or both. I have a little cart by the side of the bed on which my coffee, tea, or other beverage rests. Bruins posters intended for children, which my daughter made the giveaway people give to me too, are pinned to my walls.
10. Who is your favorite fictional character, and why?
Jyn Erso from Rogue One and Sam Winchester from Supernatural, both for similar reasons. They possess a strength few other people possess, even in the face of certain death. They’re people who were largely written off by the people around them who went on to save the world – and were pretty much forgotten by the people they saved, after they died.
11. Does your spouse read your novels?
Nope. He doesn’t read any fiction at all, and he definitely doesn’t read romance.
12. Tell us about your new release.
I love second chance romances, at least in fiction! In Under His Skin, Lennon and Ben have a long history together, but Ben was an undercover agent with a different name. Now he’s supposed to be keeping Lennon safe from an outside threat, but that early history creates some pretty obvious trust issues. Actually, Lennon has a hard time trusting the whole agency keeping him “safe,” because they’re pretty secretive and that secrecy puts him at risk.
Under His Skin is a story that provides some of the things I most like in a book – smart heroes who aren’t damsels in distress, and can kick butt all on their own. Lennon’s a genius, Ben’s a superstar in his field and can keep up with Lennon. Lennon isn’t exactly the stereotypical frail, frightened nerd, either. These guys are messy and complicated, but they fit each other.
13. How did you come up with the title?
Lennon designs and creates nanobots – tiny little robots that get injected under a person’s skin in order to perform certain functions. The bots do play a role in the story, so it seemed appropriate. (I was inspired by an article I read in an online journal I’ve long since lost.)
Also, “Under My Skin” is one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs. I used to sing it to my daughter when she was a tiny baby. So I was happy to find a way to refer to the song.
14. What genre/troupe does this book fall under?
This is a second chance romance, with treats for those who are into secret agents, political intrigue, and m/m romance. It’s also romantic suspense.
15. What heat factor is it?
I’d say it’s about a four. It’s not erotic romance, but these guys do spend an awful lot of time alone together.
16. What came first, the plot or characters?
The idea of the nanobots came first, because that was just such a cool concept. Then I thought, “Okay, who’s going to play with these and why?” That’s how I came up with Lennon, and then Ben sprang from Lennon, and the plot sprang from Ben and Lennon.
17. Who are the main characters?
Lennon Perig is the first main. He’s a genius who creates nanobots – little tiny robots that get injected into the body to (mostly) repair damage. He’s just invented something that will change the face of warfare and policing as we know it. What Lennon doesn’t know is that his efforts haven’t just made him very rich – they’ve put him on government radar. And the U. S. government isn’t the only player with an interest in his skills.
Ben Kellogg was assigned to watch over Lennon ten years ago, posing as his “friend” at MIT. They quickly became something more, but once Ben’s superiors caught wind of what was going on they pulled Ben from the assignment and sent him far away. Now they’ve gotten word that Lennon is in imminent danger – and they’re sending Ben back in.
18. Give us a plot point that isn’t in your synopsis. No spoilers please.
Well, one of the issues in the synopsis is the fact that Ben and Ben’s agency are swooping in to try to protect Lennon and Lennon’s intellectual property. The problem with that is, the agency only knows one way to do that. Lennon has worked very hard to get his company to where it is, building it up from a kitchen table to a multi-million dollar company in only ten years. He’s not about to give control of it to anyone.
This creates conflict – between Ben and Lennon, of course, but also between Lennon and the rest of the agency, between Ben and his superiors, and between Ben and his peers. Lennon is going to have to figure out who to trust, and how far. He’s also going to have to decide how much freedom he’s willing to give up in the name of safety.