Celeste sat up in a rush. “Don’t talk about Mom that way. You never really loved her. If you had, you would have supported her work.”
Wayne felt his nostrils flare. “Don’t presume to tell me how I felt about your mother.”
She closed her dead mother's drawing pad and clutched it to her undeveloped chest. Tears streamed from her eyes. “You were barely there when she got sick, and you were nowhere to be found when she died. Tell me: Do you even care that she’s gone?”
Tears burned the backs of Celeste's eyes at the thought of holding her late mom's treasured bit of jewelry, and she found her breath coming in harsh pants as a wave of emotion overtook her. For so many years, she’d quashed her feelings of loss, balled them up and buried them deep, but one look at that clunky ring undid her. She took one determined step toward that familiar silver Midgard serpent and watched it vanish before her eyes.
Gone. Just like before.
For a trio of seconds, she experienced her mother’s death all over again. The weakness. The gray skin. The sheer helplessness knowing that no medicine would ever work, and the only chance to save her meant that a heart donor with an AB negative blood type would die soon.
Disheartened over the disappearing ring, but acknowledging a divine sign when she saw one, Celeste’s eyes drifted skyward. Was her mom guiding her towards her future? Was she trying to tell her that whatever hid behind those gym doors was her destiny? A ladened breath puffed out of her as Celeste tugged open the heavy metal door, expecting her mother’s influence on the ring to have guided Celeste to a beautiful place with bright lights and shiny equipment and tanned, blond hunks glistening under artificial light.
She stopped short at the smell of male sweat intermingled with punches and grunts, a dense pocket of blatant testosterone swirling inside a gray concrete cave.
Not a woman to be seen in the place.
She sensed a man reaching towards her the second before she snapped around to face him, but he was only grabbing the door above her head to hold it open. A hint of his aftershave drifted to her, along with a touch of his personal scent. Light. Clean. Subtle. His eyes glittered with humor as he balanced a tray of four coffees in his other hand. “Ladies first.”
He was tall and heavily muscled, with milk-chocolate skin, a perfectly-shaved head and flat goatee. Kind brown eyes under thick black brows contrasted against his hard, looming bulk. His biceps flexed as he held the door, and she’d never seen such thick arms before. Or chest. The man was literally massive next to her.
He didn’t smile, but his expression softened as she hesitated about entering. “Come on, you’re letting all the stench out by blocking the door.”
Not only did he call her a lady, but his first words to her brimmed with humor, something seriously lacking in her life. She deflected her smile and stepped inside, hugging the wall as the man moved ahead of her with purpose. On his shoulder, peeking out from his shirt, the outlines of what looked like a floral tattoo could be seen.
A bouquet. Similar to the one on her own shoulder. Intrigued, she followed him.
By four AM, Hawk’s ass was numb and his ear tips were cold. Sitting on top of a building for two hours would do that to a body, he guessed.
He’d taped some blank sheets of white paper to his nightstick to wave around, but so far, the vigilante hadn’t taken his truce flag seriously.
Ten more minutes and he’d—
Heat zapped his ring finger, jolting painfully all the way up his arm. A scuff on the roof top caught his attention, and he turned.
There he was. The vigilante. And based on the ring’s reaction, dangerous.
He scanned the man from top to toes. A black mask covered both his head and the top half of his face, allowing only the glitter of his eyes to show. A padded black vest ended at narrow hips. Black jeans. Black gloves. Black sneakers.
This man had a love affair with the night.
Adrenaline coursed through him as he stood to face this scourge, his heartbeat thrumming in time to the zapping of the ring. Damn. Taking down this menace would ensure both his city’s safety and Hawk’s name first and foremost as Syracuse’s hero. He locked eyes on the vigilante, determined to face this loose cannon and see what information he could glean.
Right now, Hawk needed hard answers. Job-securing answers. City-saving, hero-making answers. He hefted his makeshift truce flag and kept his other palm up and in plain sight. “Didn’t think you’d come.”
The voice that carried to him wasn’t entirely…. human. Voice modulator? “About time one of you took me seriously.”
He smiled at the challenge. Stepped closer. “You’re shorter than I thought you’d be.”
“You’re smarter than I thought you’d be.”
He laughed. Took another step. The next electrical surge stopped him from taking a third. He yanked on the ring, but he swore it shrank, swelling his finger. He gave up that fight and focused on his quarry. “One of the women you supposedly rescued has been raving about you. She thought you might be able to shed some light on what’s been going on.”
“Yeah? Well, there’s one more rescued tonight. I’m sure it’ll be on the news tomorrow.”
“Yeah? Why don’t you tell me now?”
“Sure.” The vigilante crossed his arms low on his chest. “Single woman was followed. Grabbed by a single man. She yelled, he punched, I kicked his ass.” A hard smirk. “I hope your department will pay for her sutures as fast as the state will pay for his broken nose.”
Shit. This man really was onto something. Hawk needed to know more.
That fireman stood in the center of her home, in what looked like the eye of a hurricane. Everything around him was overturned, scattered, and downright messy. Before she could stop herself she blurted out, “What the hell have you done?”
He moved slowly to face her. “You really think I did this? You really think I had the time to upend your apartment when it took me eight minutes to get you and your damned pointy shoes out of here?”
“Leave my shoes out of this.”
“Okay, you and your smackable ass out of here.”
Oh, the man was infuriating with a capital I. “Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be evacuating people? For the fire that doesn’t exist?”
He considered her, his expression bored. “It doesn’t? Oh, good.”
She looped her arms and cocked out a hip. “As if you didn’t know.”
“I’m just a lowly firefighter, ma’am. I came in because your door was open and this is what I found. You got enemies?”
Hell, she barely had friends. “None that I’m aware of.”
“No death threats? Strange letters in the mail? Horse heads in your bed?”
He made her lips curl a bit on the last one. “No mob relations, sorry; and no to the others, as well.” Her step-dad was the one with the death threats, but once she changed her name and effectively disappeared from existence, nada. No one, including her parents, knew who or where she was.
It was better this way. Safer for everyone.
She took a cautionary step closer. “You broke in again last night, didn’t you?”
His head turned at that. “Um, what?”
With her hand she indicated his outfit. “I know it’s you under there. You didn’t fool me.”
“You’re so full of it.”
She smiled then. “Okay, maybe for a few minutes. But firemen are inherently good, and you’re anything but.”
He tore off his black helmet and visor; his long legs closed the distance between them in two strides, making her breath catch with his confidence. “Is that what you think?”
“How did you get in?”
“Can’t tell you.”
“It’s a secret.”
She’d find it, come hell or high water. “Why are you here?”
“To test the system.”
“I didn’t hire you.”
“Someone else did.”
“Can’t tell you.” He winked at her. “It’s a secret.”
Why the hell did he have to wink at her? She tucked her blouse tighter at the neck. “You’re after the algorithms, aren’t you? Well, you’ll never find them here.”
He peered at her. “So they are here.”
Maggie narrowed her gaze. “I said you’ll never find them here. That means, genius, they could be anywhere.”
Now he smiled. Why did he do that? Didn’t he know it made him look rugged, reckless, and downright irresistible? She pinched the underside of her elbow, then pinched it again.
“Look, you’ve made me, but I’ll be straight with you; you can’t stay here. Whoever did this will be back.”
“And you know this how?”
He didn’t meet her eyes, and his expression darkened, like he didn’t want to say anything. “They left a calling card.”
“Let’s go this way.” Gunner rested his hand on the small of her back as he turned her north. The intimate contact both electrified and terrified her. She shouldn’t let him touch her like that. She was practically engaged, or could be. But Phil never touched her in public. Well, really, how often had they gone out anywhere? Six? Seven times? Still, she should pull away.
That hot hand burned through her clothes, and Gunner seemed to have no intention of moving it. He smiled down at her and said, “Whatever you want will be on Duval Street, so let’s start there.”
Duval. She’d researched as much as she could and interrogated everyone else for the rest. Duval was the main drag, an East/West street of shops stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf and encompassing everything the Island had to offer. “Perfect, I’m in,” she replied, and they left the beach and headed toward the sidewalk. She stopped when she noticed a line. “Oh, it’s the Southernmost Point! We have to get a picture.”
Quite possibly, Gunner simply condescended to her touristic mood, but he joined her amiably in line. She took a few selfies of them with her phone, then asked the next person in line if they’d be so kind as to snap a few of her and her fully-dressed, non-Romanian-cabana-boy sidekick.
As soon as Gunner joined her side, Carla struck a pose, leaning back against the giant gumdrop-shaped buoy, wrist over her head, knees bent, and before the camera shuttered she impulsively snatched Gunner’s shirt at his chest and hauled him close.
He didn’t react in outrage or shock. He didn’t even seem to mind that she publicly embarrassed him. What he did do was pin her between him and the landmark, cheek to cheek, and smile for the camera.
She couldn’t believe she did that to him, a virtual stranger.
However, he looked fantastic rumpled.
“I’ll get you for that,” he muttered on a grin, but Carla only grinned in return and collected her phone, thanking the family for taking their picture as she smoothed down her shirt.
Damn. He really felt great slammed up against her like that, his hard chest pressing her breasts flat, his hips cradled between her knees, his minty breath mingling with her own.
A good man might be hard to find, but a hard man was great to find.
Based on that brief contact, Gunner was hard. She couldn’t help sliding him a hot glance, inspecting him under lowered lids as he shielded his face and scanned down the nearest side street. Her nipples strained against the thin fabric of her bra as she watched him, her heartbeat kicking up a few notches. Damn. She could still feel him on her skin.
She didn’t want to see him. Scratch that; she did. She wanted to stab him in the eye with a candy cane, string him up on the mantle by a necklace of garland, stick him in the snow and hose him down until he became an ice sculpture. Or scream and rant and rave, and maybe even get in a few good punches.
She might even do the same for Nana, for forcing her to bunk with him!
Why did he have to come back to America? Why, why, why? As if losing her job wasn’t bad enough, eventually now she’d have to talk to him. Eventually she was going to come face to face with the only man she’d ever loved, the only one who knew her inside and out.
The only one capable of breaking her into a thousand pieces all over again, and right now so little held her together.
Now that she knew he was here, Cora couldn’t stop searching for him. Not in the living room. Not in the library. She found the other Scotsman seated in the far corner, surrounded by ten kids all asking him about his clothes, his accent, and did he live in a hut like the movies? Steering Sherry past the gathering, they peeked into the sunroom.
There he was. Leaning on the glass, looking out over the snow-scape where the horse barn floodlights fanned their warm beams onto the unspoiled mounds, turning everything into soft shades of gold and gray-blue. He spoke with one of her male cousins, talking cars, but she could tell his attention was elsewhere. He wore his full Scottish regalia, complete with sporran, that round male purse hanging low from his hips. She hadn’t seen him dressed like this in years and took a moment to absorb the sight. His white button-up came crisply to his neck, held tight by a black bowtie and matching vest and jacket. His family tartan of blue and green striped plaid came almost to his knees, with little matching flags called flashes tucked under the hem of his tall white socks. His sgian dubh, the small decorative knife, peeked out over the flashes on his right calf.
He’d trimmed down since she last saw him. Started growing a shadow beard. He looked more focused, more determined, and Cora wondered how she’d come to that conclusion when he barely paid attention to his own conversation. His raven-black hair had grown longer, but even from this angle she could see his eyes glowed with their usual jade-green intensity.
She took in the measure of his shoulders, the small span of his waist, the muscles flexing under his white hose as he tapped his foot to a beat he probably heard in his head. He always did that. As a teenager, she used to think him impatient, but now she knew everything with Matty was music. Her eyes flew to his fingers and noticed they didn’t tap, but fingered notes as they rapped away on the wooden window muntins.
Was it possible for a man to get more gorgeous as he aged? Was that even fair? Or allowed?
“Heaven,” the man said as he flopped back. “Tell me I’ve died and gone to heaven.” He moved on the couch, then arched and hissed from his shoulder pain.
With a refuting noise Tori replied, “Not heaven, but actually, you can’t get much closer.”
“Oh, no? Where am I, anyway?”
She shrugged. “We’re in the Kapu Nahele Reserve. Paenapalaua is the nearest known gulch. We’re smack-dab in the middle of a big stretch of wilderness out here.”
He looked at her, and Tori reflexively dipped her head to hide her facial scars.
“On Molokai. We’re the middle of the eight Hawaiian Islands. This whole side of the island is a reserve.”
“How far are we from Kaho’olawe?”
She shrugged, frowned at the odd question. “I don’t know, maybe fifty miles? No one goes there.”
His lips twisted at her words, his voice came out as a low growl. “I did.”
“What were you doing there?” She looked down; that came out wrong.
He heaved a deep breath and didn’t answer. “May I use your phone?”
She got up and grabbed her satellite phone off the table and handed it to him. “Not the greatest reception out here during storms. I’ve been trying to call out for you for two days with no luck. It’s best if you stand on the porch.”
His hand lowered. “You have?”
She nodded, and watched his features soften.
“Thank you. Truly. For everything you’ve done for me.” When his fingers brushed hers for the phone, Tori felt an electric jolt from the touch. Although it had been five years since a man had touched her intimately, she’d tended to many lost and wounded hikers in that time, but none had made her nipples stand in attention. The local villagers knew she chose to live in this hard-to-access reserve after the accident on the mainland. Her med-student boyfriend had cracked open her chest to save her after the truck had jackknifed their car in San Fran, and two months in the hospital recovering from the multiple surgeries made him reevaluate their relationship.
Her facial scars, she was sure, helped solidify his decision. The one on her right forehead she could live with, even the one that lanced through her hairline and into her right ear and skimmed off the tip. It was the four-inch one that eviscerated her earlobe and tugged the right corner of her mouth that she really hated. It was long and raised and ugly and drew everyone’s attention as surely as if she had painted it on with mascara.
While her shaggy guest adjourned to the porch, Tori opened her fridge and pulled out the fish she just caught, some bread and butter and her homemade sweet potato chips, wondering about her mystery man. Kaho’olawe? What was he doing there? He certainly wasn’t part of the cleanup crew; not in those clothes. She wondered if he was on an archaeological dig or something. These islands had tons of sites that drew many for enlightenment.
She watched him attempt to call out. After a few fruitless minutes he gave up, his back still to her, and she watched him brace his hands on the open windowsills facing the back yard and shake his head. Watched him wipe his face with one hand. He stayed there for a long minute, not moving. Then the storm blasted through, the wind rippling through his long hair, the spray of the rain brushing along his upturned cheeks.
Yeah, he’d definitely been caught out to sea. He’d probably want a nice cool shower on his damaged skin. It was healing already though, she noted with satisfaction.
She watched him run his fingers through his hair like he tried to rinse off. He needed help, and Tori was there to help him, like she always helped people.
He opened the door, and the wind gusted from behind him, knocking her sunhat off her head. She cried out and snatched for it, but her guest grabbed her arm and stared at her, his gaze roving over her awful face.
"Scarred and disfigured, I know.” She tried to wrench free, but his grip tightened and drew her closer. She detected a minute headshake of negation, but his eyes never left hers.
She watched his expression falter, like he was awed, or maybe unsure. She felt his hand on her arm gentle and tug her closer, and his expression shifted. She no longer felt like she was in control of the encounter, more like a patron in a movie. His other hand cradled her free elbow, drew her even nearer. This close, she could smell the soap and shampoo on him, the fresh mint of her toothpaste. He must have availed himself to the guest bathroom in her absence, and the familiar scent of her toiletries had never smelled as delectable as they did on him.
His bare chest muscles tautened and flexed, and Tori felt her gaze alternating between the breadth of his power and the gentleness in his eyes. His gaze focused on her mouth, her lips. For the first time, Tori thought a man didn’t notice her scars. She needed to say something, even though she felt breathless, and asked, “What about my eyes?”
Her guest let out a deep minty breath, like he’d been snorkeling too deep. “They...” He pulled her closer, almost chest to chest, making Tori’s nipples harden at his proximity.
Her breathing hitched at the heat of his skin; her voice wavered. “They what?”
Now he shook his head like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing... or saying. “They make a man realize what he wants in life, and what he’s willing to do to get it.”
A flushed, panting Faith burst into Jess’ office, almost banging the door into the front of her vintage stereo in her haste. “You’ve got to come out here.”
Was she blushing? Jess eased herself up from the chair and eyed her protégé. “What is it?”
“Some gorgeous guy is having a conniption out here. He’s really giving Arthur a hard time.”
She glossed over the ‘gorgeous’ part- based on the boy-crazy source- but no one antagonized her staff. “I’m coming.”
“You-” Faith indicated the corner mirror taken from an 1800s highboy, “...may want some lipstick or something.”
“Faith,” she grumbled as she brushed by, swishing her out so she could close the door. When she heard the raised booming voice, Jess squared her shoulders, tossed her long hair from her temples, and plowed right in to the fray. Through the red haze in her eyes, she stuck her hand out at the insanely handsome man and said, “Hello, I’m Jessalyn Swan, proprietor of Phoenix Antiques, and I’ll be your sounding board today. Shall we adjourn to my office for this discussion?”
All the anger left his chocolaty brown eyes as he stared at her. His hair was dark brown and tousled, and his gaze held a determination and intelligence that she felt herself respond to on a primal level. He had wide shoulders and slim hips, and that very expensive suit he wore displayed to his advantage all of his masculine grace. But he looked disheveled and rattled with that five o’clock shadow, and she didn’t know what had set him off. He was not an unhappy prior customer; there was no way she would have forgotten this man.
Damn, maybe she should have looked in the mirror first. She wanted to take her time and leisurely peruse the fine male specimen standing before her, making her cheeks heat with the unpredictable turn of her thoughts. But then his face relaxed, taking his color from an enraged red to a ghostly shade of gray and then back to a hint of pink, and Jessalyn felt herself coming to the same odd revelation as this man.
“Jess,” Arthur said, “This man is disputing his rights to the Covington estate.”
“Jessalyn....” the man said as he stepped near, placing his hand on top of her still-outstretched wrist and holding it. “Jess, is it really you?”
She’d never once met a Beauregard her age before. But she had once met a young man, as equally gorgeous, with the same cadence of speech as an English knight of yore. Her mind immediately envisioned stone castles and gleaming armor and caparisoned stallions on battlefields. It couldn’t be. “I....”
“You know me by my middle name.”
As his hand slipped around to cradle her fingers, Jessalyn felt herself teetering on a dangerous brink over a yawning chasm with no visible bottom. She whispered, “Darius.”
Travis yanks open the door, relieved to finally find me. “There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.”
I’m not myself, but I’m glad he can tell that, too. He joins my side, facing me and not the bartender. “Are you all right?”
I manage the world’s smallest headshake while I stare at my wine. The shaking resumes, and I spread my palms on the counter.
His gentle hand lands on my shoulder. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” he whispers, then leans closer, “I was trying to pull away, you know. I’m not totally to blame, here.”
His touch soothes me. My lips move in what I hope passes as a smile while I spin the stem of my glass. “I’m not blaming you.” I do manage to glance up at him for that, but then take another sip and pin the base to the counter with both hands.
I love hearing him call me by name. I suck my lip again, feeling how swollen it is from my ardor. God, I’ve never thrown myself into a man’s arms like that. I’m not even sure what my limbs were doing then; who’s to say I hadn’t wrapped my legs around his hips and gone to town?
The heat on my cheeks this time is from the wine; I’m glad I’m sipping more to help hide my shame.
I shake my head once, still looking into my drink. “People are trying to kill you, aren’t they?”
I feel his fingers twitch on my shoulder, an involuntary gesture he didn’t mean to let happen. “What are you talking about?”
En vino audacia, for my dose of courage makes me face him. “Are they or aren’t they? It’s a yes or no question.”
He holds my eyes, looking from one to the other, the way people do when they search for lies. “You got all that from a kiss?”
I slow-blink a yes, and a parade of red flags starts waving before my third eye. What the hell is it with this man? I find myself angling away from him, and the words tumble out of my mouth before I can stop them: “Are you dangerous?”
“Only to the bad guys, RoseAngel. I truly hope you’re not one of them.”
Anya shook her head, still rubbing her neck as she tipped her head back. “Just researching the flu for your niece. Warm weather might be a gift in your favor.”
“Thank you, for spending so much of your time for Annabel Lee.”
Warm hands nudged hers off her neck, and Anya relaxed under the probing massage Cody offered her. “Oh my God, that feels so good.”
“Your shoulders are rock hard. How do you even move?”
“Some days I ask myself that very question.”
He patted her back and said, “Here, lean forward. I’ll get your back.”
This was feeling intimate, and Anya felt the forewarning burn of tears. “Cody, you don’t have—”
“Nonsense. You’ve been on your feet all day, and here you are, hunched over the table, to help me. I know what that does to a body. Now,” he leaned forward, arm braced on the table, his voice low, “either you lean over this table, or I’m tossing you over my shoulders and putting you on that there couch, where I can rub you down proper.” His eyes could not possibly sparkle any more than they did just now.
So Anya pushed him off, stood up, and walked to the couch. “Let’s see if those hands are as good as you claim.” She lay down on her stomach, grabbed the remote to watch the news, and watched as Cody eased onto the cushion at her hip.
Oh, yeah, he was as good as his claim. His strong fingers kneaded and massaged her shoulders, her back, along her waist. She vacillated what she would do when his fingers inevitably strayed and had no ready answer. The issue-laden spurned woman within wanted to haul off and deck him, but the lovelorn woman looking to trust thought she might just offer a feeble rebuttal.
Alas, such opportunities never arose.
By the time Cody was done, Anya’s body felt as liquefied as their grilled cheese sandwiches. Some of the liquid seeped a little south.
She felt so relaxed, in fact, that she had no commentary for the horrible events being portrayed on screen— a first for her. This was usually when her disgust reached an apex.
Right now, her body vibrated a crescendo. One good kiss could make her orgasm.
She looked over her shoulder and willed Cody to meet her gaze.
The phone rang as Raylie stepped out of the shower, so she answered it in her room. “Hello?”
A pause. “Officer McPherson?”
“Who’s calling, please?”
“It’s Ashton Lyre, from Star—”
“How did you get this number?” Was he a stalker? Dangerous?
He seemed tentative, confused. “I…you gave it…the write-up. Report. Whatever you want to call it. It says ‘Me’ at this number, right at the top.”
Shit! That was intended for Leann, for bowling. Her free hand slowly cradled her forehead. The towel fell.
“I…I thought…maybe…you know…you had heard of the last fiasco. Wanted to find out more. Especially since the case was dropped only two weeks ago.”
Her body responded to the uncertainty in his voice, the vulnerability that made her originally choose this profession. His rich timbre vibrated through the phone, making her nipples pebble and a shiver tickle along her spine.
She was probably just cold. “What? It was?”
“Well…yeah. No evidence. I told them I never hired the kid. I thought maybe you had some suspects in mind.”
Raylie snatched up her towel and gripped it to her wayward breasts. “Mr. Lyre, in my profession, the suspects are always the ones who own the pets.”
“Damn it, McPherson,” she heard a thud through the phone line. A palm along a table? “Doc Schneible was here not two hours after you left. I’ve known this man for fifteen years. He was my character witness at the trial, for God’s sake. He thinks my boys were poisoned. Now, I want to know, do you have any suspects?”
Not many men stood up to a woman with a gun. And he referred to his horses as his “boys.” She liked that. Like they were kin and not commodity. Something she understood better than most.
Still…in a composed voice she said, “I think you need to call the Louisville Police Department for that, Mr. Lyre. If you’re talking suspects, it’s really hard for us to put lie detectors on horses. Hell, even our stool pigeons don’t sing.”
He grew quiet. She started shivering again. “I thought,” he started slowly, “that being an animal cop meant you wanted to help those in jeopardy. Give voices to those who can’t speak. See that justice was served.” He took a deep breath. “Guess I was wrong about you.” He hung up the phone.
“No, you weren’t,” she whispered before replacing the receiver. Moisture had gathered in a long neglected place, moisture far removed from her shower. For the first time, a man had unwittingly validated her job, her beliefs, her purpose, and dang it, it felt good. Her breasts tightened as her nipples strained out of her skin. His face danced in the mirror of her mind, and she imagined those callused hands sliding around her waist, drawing her close.
Humpty Dumpty may be dead, but suddenly Raylie no longer felt like she was. “He’s my suspect,” she growled at herself.
This was going to be a great case.
She was completely turned on.