Josef picked at his nails with his knife, stupefied with boredom. Despite all his contacts, his skills with explosives, interrogation, and small arms, he was still forced to babysit the vor’s worthless son.
Sasha Cherchenko was engrossed in his tablet, sunken face eerily lit by the screen’s glare. Mute, pathetic, junkie waste of skin. Heir to an empire worth billions. His very existence offended Josef, who had fought for every bite of food and breath of air he took, for his entire fucking life.
The silence grated. Josef got up to stretch, and circled Sasha from behind. He was watching a lecture on the tablet. A pretty young woman was talking. Josef abruptly recognized her and froze, startled.
That was Svetlana Ardova, daughter of that hellbitch Sonia, who had fucked Josef over. He had not seen pictures of the girl in years. Abducted at twelve, doomed for death by organ harvesting.
The camera zoomed close. Big, tilted hazel eyes, lush mouth, glossy hair. A sweet treat. The media had glommed on to that avidly after her spectacular rescue years ago. She was prettier now. He licked his lips.
Svetlana indicated a screen, where a photo was projected. Sonia’s striking face stared out. Words, scribbled on the picture, in Cyrillic. Josef lunged for Sasha’s tablet, yanking the headphones off him, ignoring Sasha’s startled yelp of protest. He hit the volume, maxed it.
“. . . book will be dedicated to my parents’ memory,” Svetlana’s voice blared. Josef dragged the cursor, let the last few seconds of video run again. He froze the frame when Sonia’s image appeared.
The scribble read, The Sword of Cain. The rest was trimmed away but for a couple of numbers. His ears roared. After six years, a place to begin the search again. Someone to squeeze, until she popped.
Sasha croaked, in his hoarse, halting voice, trying to tug the tablet back. Josef struck him, sending him sprawling across the coffee table. He ignored the young man’s scratchy whimpering as he dialed his boss.
“Yes,” drawled Pavel Cherchenko’s gravelly voice.
“We have a lead.” Josef’s voice shook with excitement. He waited a beat to calm it. “The Sword of Cain, written on one of Sonia’s photos. Svetlana displayed a slide, in a lecture online. I can fly to Portland today.”
The vor grunted. “And my sons? Who watches them?”
Sasha whimpered. Josef smacked the back of his head. “They have Andrei and Aleksei to guard them.”
A long, teeth-grinding pause ensued. “Go to Portland,” the vor said.
The video was playing again. “. . . only one heart is healed, only one life saved, it will have been worth it. Thank you.”
The room erupted in applause. Svetlana stood in the spotlight, challenging him with her eyes. Such a delicate thing. Ripe to be conquered, ravaged. Punished, for all of Sonia’s sins.
Oh, yes. Let the pretty little daughter pay and pay.
Two days later
Sam Petrie leaned on the wall, arms folded. He stared into the dance floor, careful not to meet anyone’s eyes. He wasn’t here for chitchat. Against every last lingering instinct for self-preservation, he was at another no-holds-barred McCloud Crowd wedding, trolling for a chance to scope out the elusive Svetlana Ardova. She of the big, tragic eyes, the high, pointed tits. And the obscure, inexplicable prejudice against him.
It was almost two years since that kiss in Bruno’s studio. But that event had transformed his schoolboy crush into a full-out obsession.
Which was why he’d snookered himself into accepting the invitation to Aaro and Nina’s wedding. Nina’s pregnancy had derailed it last year, but their twins, Julia and Oksana, were six months old now, so wedding plans had finally gone forward, and the gang was all there. Great food and booze and music. Squealing kids. Everyone dancing, having a good time, being curious about shit that was not their business. While he lurked in the corner, hot-eyed. Staring at Sveti like a panting perv-weasel. It was humbling. He’d locked up many specimens of the kind of obsessed asshole he was now, and rejoiced to see them off the streets.
Sveti was talking to a bevy of hotties in evening gowns, all holding stringed instruments. The Venus Ensemble, aka the eye candy orchestra. Trafficked from Eastern European conservatories, lured by promises of green cards, subsequently embroiled in a deadly scheme involving mind-control drugs and other crazy shit that Sam still didn’t quite believe. Kev McCloud had saved them from an unspeakable fate, and the news coverage had given the group awesome publicity. They’d formed a hot string ensemble and were making money hand over fist.
Hurray. Chalk one up for the good guys.
The Venus Ensemble were stunners, yes, but Sveti blew them away. She was the smallest, even in killer heels, but so perfect. Vivid, in that crimson dress. His eyes hurt from the hyperstimulation. Tilted hazel eyes over Slavic cheekbones. Full, soft red lips calculated to invoke impure thoughts, and a regal attitude that instantly rebuked said impure thoughts. High, perfect tits. Taut nipples. The sight made his hands tingle. Her hair was twisted into a complicated knot. It looked great, but he liked it better loose. His fingers clenched, remembering that silken floss. He wanted to kiss the heart-shaped port-wine birthmark on her neck. Trace its borders. Study it like a map.
He sidled closer. She was talking in Russian or some dialect thereof. It turned him on, hearing her speak her native language. Then again, it turned him on to hear her talk at all, period.
Aw, fuck it. Even her sullen silences turned him on.
He wrenched his gaze away and stared out at swaying couples. There was Sveti’s date, Josh Cattrell—tall, prosperous, and flushed with champagne. Might or might not be the reason Sveti blew off Sam’s phone calls, texts, e-mails. Any comparisons between Josh and Sam would not be in Sam’s favor at the moment. He’d been too lazy and rebellious to cut his hair lately, and had resorted to yanking his brown mane into a ponytail. He’d shaved last week, for the psych eval, but the shrink’s conclusion had pissed him off so much, he hadn’t bothered since. And he was too thin for his suit, everywhere but the shoulders, which strained at the seams as a result of obsessive workouts. His face looked grim and sunken when he caught it reflected in glass.
Nah, he didn’t stack up well next to Cattrell’s stylish haircut, fresh shave, charming dimples, fake tan. The perfectly cut suit.
Empty-headed dickface. Sam hated him on sight.
Sveti had known Cattrell since she was thirteen. He’d briefly shared her imprisonment, before they’d been rescued from the organ thieves. Most episodes involving McClouds and their pals had an off-the-charts weird factor. Weird usually turned him off, but not when Sveti was involved. It was wrist-thick iron cables, yanking him in.
Josh Cattrell was an ass-bite, flashing his overly whitened teeth at every babe he saw. Sam watched him punch the number of one of the catering staff into his smartphone, whisper in her ear, pat her ass.
This piece of shit was his competition?
The guy turned without missing a beat and held out his arms to Sveti. He pulled her onto the dance floor and dropped his hand to her hip, like he hadn’t just been fondling another woman’s booty. The singer crooned a slow tune as the hand crept lower.
Fuck this shit. Fuck it into lightless oblivion.
The feeling built like steam, hot and dangerous. He didn’t recognize it, or have a strategy for dealing with it. He played it cool with the ladies, as a long string of disgruntled would-be girlfriends would attest. He’d heard plenty about his “commitment issues” over the years. “Man slut” was another phrase they tossed around.
Out, out, out. Get your deranged, unhinged ass out before you do something pointless and stupid. Just fuck off. NOW.
Sveti was too young for him, anyway. Josh was closer to her in age. Not a lot closer, though. Maybe five years younger than Sam’s thirty-three. Maybe only four. Four fucking measly years. Four.
He barreled into someone on his way to the coatroom and mumbled an apology, but the person grabbed his arm. “Hey, Sam.”
It took a few moments to place the guy. Tall, tanned, closely shorn dark hair. It was the nose that finally pegged him. “Oh. Miles.”
The man partly responsible for derailing Sam’s career as homicide detective. Not that he held any grudges. Miles had just been trying to keep himself and his girlfriend alive. But Sam’s involvement in Miles’ bizarre adventures, however slight, had not helped his career prospects.
“I’ve, uh, been meaning to talk to you,” Miles said.
Not. Miles had been busy rolling around on sugar sand beaches with his adoring bride on their protracted, well-deserved honeymoon.
The weirdness of their tale had made the higher-ups nervous and uncomfortable. Which made people want to blame someone. Punish someone. Step right up, Sam. At the ready.
The woo-woo factor had sealed his doom. They’d put him away. Using the excuse of last year’s gunshot wound and the psych evaluations that followed. PTSD, the shrinks said, but that was bullshit. His symptoms weren’t that bad. Sure, he was twitchy and depressed, but so were a lot of people who were out there working. That diagnosis had far more to do with some discreet phone calls from his father to various local politicians who were tight with the police commissioner.
He pushed on past the guy. “Gotta go, Miles. See you around.”
Miles grabbed his arm. “Wait. I just wanted to say, uh, that I appreciate your giving me that heads-up, back when I was fighting for our lives. I haven’t said that to you directly, being out of town so long, and I’ve been wanting to. And you, uh . . . weren’t at our wedding.”
“Yeah.” He’d been in the hospital. Gut shot. Miles looked just too fucking relaxed, tanned, and sexually fulfilled. Choffing all those ripe mangos, boinking his true love on all those beaches. It stuck in Sam’s craw. “Where have you guys been?” he asked, just to torture himself.
Miles had the grace to look sheepish. “Bali, most recently. We rented this tree house, in a banyan jungle.”
“Sweet,” Petrie said.
“Pretty much. We only came back because Lara, well . . . we’re expecting.” His large Adam’s apple bobbed nervously. “So we wanted to settle into the house. Get ready for the new arrival.”
“Great.” Sam coughed it out like a hair ball. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Miles said. “We’re really excited. But if there was anyone I could talk to, you know, to explain how things really went—”
“God, no. Thanks, but no,” he said hastily.
“Okay.” Miles looked downcast. “Just wish I could help. So what are you doing with yourself these days, anyhow? Still on medical leave?”
Wow, where to begin. Loafing like a slob, when he wasn’t sprinting through the park as if flesh-eating zombies were chasing him. Day trading. Reading Sveti’s anti-trafficking blog. Watching the flesh-crawling adventures she sometimes live-streamed on her viral v-log, following every peep of her Twitter feed. Watching her TED talk, about her own personal journey into anti-trafficking activism. On his computer, tablet, smartphone. Obsessively. Or staring at her Facebook photo gallery. Not that she’d friended him. He’d hacked her account.
“I’ve been evaluating my options,” he hedged.
“I hear you’re getting pressure to join the family business. Some big hedge fund, right?”
Sam was startled. He’d mentioned it in passing to Kev, weeks back. Now here was Miles spouting it back at him. He hadn’t thought they were so interested in his life. Hell, he himself wasn’t that interested in his life. “Yeah, some,” he admitted. “I’d rather slit my own throat.”
Miles’ eyebrow went up. “Why? Do you suck at it?”
“No, I’m good at it. But just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you should be doing it.” He’d gotten dangerously skilled lately at high-tech stalking, for instance.
“I hear you. I’ve got a few unspeakable skills myself these days.”
Miles sounded like he was veering toward the issue of his purported psychic powers, about which Sam really did not want to hear. He turned to go, then jerked back into the niche in the hall that led to the bathrooms. A phalanx of blood-chilling femininity was advancing down the corridor. Tam and Becca were frog-marching a struggling, squawking Sveti straight toward them.
“You . . . shut . . . up!” Tam snarled. “I’m not letting you do this!”
“I have shut up for years! I am done shutting up!” Sveti lapsed into some Slavic language or other, her voice shrilly impassioned.
“No, you are not,” Becca said in response to Sveti’s tirade. “He would kill you if you did that. Calm down, Sveti. Keep it together.”
“I will not be gagged, not again! I am sick of this. . . .”
Her voice swelled in volume and then faded as the three women proceeded past the niche without noticing them.
Miles peered around the corner. “Weird,” he said, in a wondering voice. “I’ve never seen Sveti freak out. Wonder what set her off.”
He took off in pursuit, and after a second, Sam did, too. Anything that could drive Sveti into a hot frenzy had something to teach him.
It didn’t take investigative skills to find the door. Sveti and Tam were bellowing at each other, Becca in between, bleating desperate entreaties to calm down. The two men slunk into the parlor. Nina and Aaro had rented a lavish nineteenth-century timber baron’s mansion for their reception, and Tam flipped on a wall sconce fashioned of stained glass that lit the ornately decorated room with a dim glow like firelight.
“. . . expect me to be silent while that man smirks in my face? He did business with Zhoglo! And heroin dealers, and meth cooks, and the filthy scum who traffic women and children for slave labor and organs and sex! And I’m supposed to sip my champagne and make nice?”
“I expect you to keep your head!” Tam yelled back. “Why this overwhelming need to attract attention from people who would kill you for an insult? You’ve already gotten death threats! What more do you—”
“Death threats?” Sam’s voice was sharp. “From whom?”
The three women swiveled their heads to glare at the intruders.
“Piss off, Sam,” Tam said, with a flap of her hand. “We’re busy, and we didn’t ask for your input. The man is everything that you say, of course. He’s also the groom’s father, so you have no business—”
“They were fools to invite me to an event where a piece of filthy mafiya scum is on the guest list!”
“They didn’t invite him!” Becca yelled. “He crashed, Sveti, with four big, armed thugs escorting him! So unless you want this party, full of your friends and their young children, to turn into a dangerous brawl at best and a shootout at worst, you will stick a fucking sock in it!”
Sveti hid her face. He saw a flash of her shaking mouth, painted slut red. The gloss had worn off, but the matte stain lingered.
She caught his glance. “What are you looking at?” she snapped.
“Nothing,” he said. “So Oleg Arbatov crashed the wedding? That’s special.” And typical. This crowd liked to keep things interesting.
“He walked in twenty minutes ago,” Becca said. “Nick about had a heart attack. Aaro’s trying to psi-bully him into leaving. Nina’s working the charm angle. He wants to spend quality time with the twins. He’s sick of being put off. Benevolent old Grandpa Oleg.”
Sveti shot Sam a look that was bright with challenge. “You’re a cop,” she said. “Arrest the corrupt old goat. Throw him in jail.”
“I’m not currently representing the law,” Sam pointed out.
“Can’t you do a citizen’s arrest?” Miles asked innocently.
“You know how the system works,” Sam said. “If I don’t have evidence that’s admissible in court, what’s the point? If you want to provoke him into cutting your throat in front of witnesses, that would work. I could arrest him then. Your move, man. Feel free.”
“Shut up, Petrie.” Sveti’s voice quivered. “You’re useless.”
“Call me Sam. And what’s this about death threats?”
“None of your goddamn business!”
Sam turned his gaze on Tam. “Death threats from whom?”
Tam rolled her eyes. “If she wants you to know, she’ll tell you. Otherwise, fuck off.”
They turned at the small voice. Rachel, Tam’s adopted daughter. She held Becca’s little girl Sofia by the hand. Rachel was tall, pretty, a mop of black curls. Starting to bud.
“Is Sveti okay?” Sofia piped up.
Sveti gave the girls a tremulous smile. “Of course, sweetheart.”
Sofia ran and flung her arms around Sveti’s waist. Sveti hugged the little girl back, fiercely.
“You’re sure?” Rachel looked unconvinced. “You were yelling. You never yell. Did that old man do something bad to you?”
“No, he didn’t. Everything’s fine, baby.” Tam clapped her hands. “Rachel, come with me to find Daddy. Sofia, you come, too. Becca, monitor the situation in the ballroom.” She fixed her piercing topaz gaze on Miles and Sam. “You two stay here with Sveti. Do not under any circumstances let her go back into the ballroom. She has enough problems without getting her name on Oleg Arbatov’s hit list.”
Tam clicked past them and seized the young girls by the hand. Becca followed, adding her own glare to reinforce Tam’s directive. The door clicked closed. The silence that followed was profound.
Miles’ glance darted from Sveti, who had hidden her face behind her hands again, to Sam. He gulped. “I, uh . . . need to go find Lara,” he said to Sam. “Can you handle this okay on your own?”
His heart gave a sharp, percussive thud, like a jackhammer. Oh, fuck yeah, he could so handle this on his own. “I’m good,” he said.
“I do not need to be handled!” Sveti flared. Her mascara had run, smudging into a sexy, wild-girl raccoon mask.
Miles backed toward the door. “’Course you don’t. Good, then. So, later, dude.” Miles sidled out. “All yours.” The door clicked shut.
All yours. The fantasy head rush was swiftly quenched when she lunged for the door. He blocked her path. “No way.”
Her golden eyes widened, shocked. “You don’t think you’re keeping me in here, do you? You’re not serious!”
“You heard Tam,” Sam replied. “You leave this room, and she comes after my balls with the bolt cutters.”
Sveti’s chest heaved, which highlighted her excellent nipple hard-on. “What Tam might do to you is nothing compared to what I will do to you if you try to stop me from walking out that door.”
Sam reached and flicked the knob lock. “I’ll take my chances.”
She crossed her arms over the nipple jut. “Wrong answer.”
“Yeah? What are you going to do to me? You got a pair of bolt cutters under your skirt, too?”
She snorted. “Most guys seem to think so.”
He admired the hot flush staining her cheekbones. “I don’t.”
“Good for you. Congratulations. You’re very brave. Now get out of my way. I can’t stand being confined. Not after what happened to me.”
He waved that away. “Don’t play the captive-waif-in-the-dungeon pity card with me. It’s old and tired. Move on.”
Her jaw sagged in utter shock. “You asshole!”
“Yeah, sure,” he agreed. “I have nothing to lose. You already think I’m a dickhead. Why not say whatever I damn well please?”
Curling wisps of hair swayed around her chin as she shook her head. “I have bigger problems than your unrequited crush, Petrie!”
“Burrrrrnnn,” he murmured. “Tell me about those big problems, since we’re shut in here together. You can start with the death threats.”
Her eyes slid away. “I do not want to discuss that.”
“Too bad. I say we do.”
A tense silence followed that statement. She flicked him a wary glance from under those long lashes. “You can’t bully me,” she said.
“You think not?” he said. “Let’s see about that. Spit it out. Who, what, where, and when. Was it that sweatshop bust, six months ago? Those piece-of-shit snakeheads Helen Wong and Him Goh?”
Her eyes went wide and startled. “How do you know about them?”
“I watch the news, Sveti,” he said patiently. “I’m a cop. I have friends. I hear things. Plus, you live-streamed, blogged, and tweeted the whole thing to a hundred and twenty thousand followers.”
“And you are one of them now? Spying on me?”
He plowed right on past that one, there being no point. “Sneaking into that place with a live video camera on you was suicidal. You should have just passed the tip on to the police and let them deal with it.”
Her chin tilted up. “There were thirty-four trafficked Chinese nationals locked in there, slaving eighteen hours a day! I saw my chance and took it! People have to see for themselves. It’s the only thing that makes it real for them. That’s what pulls in the donations!”
“You can’t help anyone if you’re dead,” he pointed out. “But never mind that now. Just tell me about the death threats.”
“It was just a letter,” she said, defensive. “Hand-delivered. It said they were going to kill me. That’s all. Nothing came of it.”
She shook it off. “Months ago, now.”
“So why aren’t you guarded twenty-four/seven?” he snarled.
“I was! For months! Finally, I put my foot down, because it was absurd, Sam. I can’t live my life like that. Don’t worry! It’s covered!”
Covered, his ass. But he knew a dead-end conversation when he heard one. He had lots of practice. Those were a Petrie family hobby.
“Fine,” he said. “On to the next item that’s not my business.”
Her eyes dilated. He wished he had the super-senses they said Miles had now. His heart pounded too hard to hear hers, certainly at that distance. He started to close that distance, and she skittered back a pace. It took all his willpower to stay motionless, leaving none to hold back the incredibly ill-advised question. “If you don’t want to talk about death threats, then tell me about your love life.”
Her mouth tightened. “I would rather not.”
“Tell me about lover boy. How long have you been seeing him?”
“You mean Josh? I’ve known him ever since Nick rescued me from Zhoglo. He’s a good friend.”
“Define ‘friend,’” he said. “Does it mean, free to fondle your ass?”
Her chin tilted up a notch. “You’re being invasive.”
“Yeah? Would you feel invaded to learn that he’s hitting on two girls on the catering staff, in between groping slow dances with you?”
Her gaze dropped, but she did not look as startled or upset about that revelation as she ought to. “You have no right to judge.”
“Wrong,” he informed her. “That ten minutes in Ranieri’s home office two years ago. No matter how long ago, no matter how you’ve ignored me since then, that ten minutes gives me the right to give a shit. Tell me about Cattrell. Are you fucking him?”
“No!” The denial popped out, vehement and breathless.
“Planning to?” he persisted. If this was going to be the definitive crotch kick of reality, then bring it on.
Sveti’s gaze dropped. He waited.
“You’re not involved with him at all,” he said.
“I told you,” she said. “We’re good friends.”
“And it doesn’t bug you that he was fondling the waitstaff.”
“No, not anymore,” she said softly. “I’ve known for a long time that he doesn’t have the feelings for me that I’d, um, hoped.”
Hoped? Sveti had hoped, and the guy hadn’t delivered the goods? God, Cattrell must be brain damaged not to hit on that.
“He was touching you as if you were lovers,” he said. “But you’re not an ass-grab kind of girl. You asked him to do that for my benefit. He was a safe date, in case I came to smoke you out. Your human shield.”
Her color rose. “Wow, Petrie. You may be surprised to learn this, but you are not, in fact, the center of all my thoughts.”
“Tell me if I’m right,” he persisted, though he was already sure.
“Get out of my way!” She tried to push past him, toward the door.
He grabbed her. He knew he shouldn’t, but the part of him that knew had no say. The rest of him clamped on to her, nerves jangling at the sweet shock of contact. Laced up into that tight cage of crimson satin, her heat and scent overwhelmed his senses. She strained away from him. Provoking a dangerous, animal urge to drag her close. Pin her down.
“Let me go, Petrie,” she said. “Or I’ll start to scream.”
“You treat me like I’m a criminal lowlife, out to rape and pillage,” he said. “I’m one of the good guys, Sveti.”
“Hah,” she muttered. “There are no good guys.”
“We’re all bad, then? You lump me in with Arbatov? Zhoglo?”
The mention of the two mafiya vors energized her struggle. He clamped her tighter against his body. Her heartbeat was so frantic and birdlike. She felt so fragile. But she wasn’t.
“I can’t believe we’re talking about my love life when that monster is in the ballroom with my friends and their kids, eating tempura-dipped zucchini flowers! He’s committed horrible crimes against innocents!”
“You’re not the only one who tries to protect the innocent.”
She sniffed. “Yes, of course. The police are so very noble.”
He waited for a moment. “Not fair,” he said quietly. “We try.”
She looked down, abashed. “That is true, and I apologize,” she said. “This is silly, Sam. I promise, I won’t be rude to the criminals. I won’t get myself or anyone else killed. Let go. Please. I’ll be good.”
Now she was trying sweet reason. Who cared. She might have gotten a handle on her self-control, but he most definitely had not.
His grip did not slacken as he put words to the thought forming in his head. “You know what your problem is, Sveti?”
She tilted a winged dark brow. “I imagine you’re going to tell me?”
“Your love life, the thing with Josh. Me. It’s the same issue. You think sex is frivolous. The real deal is the big bad story of your life. Ogres trying to cut your heart out and sell it. The last-minute rescue from a grisly death. The hell you went through gives your life purpose. It defines you. The rest is fluff. It doesn’t deserve your full attention.”
“And you think you deserve my full attention, Sam?”
“Yeah,” he said baldly. “And you deserve mine. My full, undivided attention, all over every inch of your body, for a prolonged period of uninterrupted time.”
She shrank away. “I don’t have time for games.”
“Yeah, getting buried in a concrete bridge piling, that’s Svetlana Ardova’s idea of a good time. You must be lot of fun at parties, babe.”
“Fuck you, Petrie!”
Ooh, hostile. “You have to let the past go,” he told her.
“Do I?” She shook with a bitter jolt of laughter. “Really! Wow, Sam, thanks for the insight! Like it’s that easy! You have no idea.”
“You’ve still got to let go,” he repeated stubbornly. “The evil vor, the dungeon, the whole fucking horrible mess. You survived. It’s over. The end. Stop dragging that ten-ton weight around.”
“You don’t know shit about it! You can’t say that to me!”
“Of course, nobody can say that to you. That’s why your love life is so hot and happening. All those unsayable things start to choke a guy after about ten minutes.”
“Let go of me, goddamnit!” She flailed furiously.
“But I can say the unsayable. You already think I’m scum. I don’t have to pretend to be anything but a dickhead. Ahhh. Freedom.”
“I never said you were a dickhead,” she whispered.
Happy news, but he wasn’t getting cocky about it just yet.
“Where do you get courage to say unsayable things?” she asked. “All the men I meet are afraid of me. So what makes you so brave?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Just dumb that way, I guess.”
There was a floor-length mirror. He tugged her across the floor until they were reflected in it, right down to the pointy toes peeping out beneath the hem of her skirt. She made a distressed sound and fought her arm free to fumble for a tissue, with which she tried to wipe mascara.
“I scare you to death,” he said.
She somehow managed to look haughty while mopping up her nose with a tissue. “No, you do not. But you are very intense.”
“Just with you. Usually, I’m Mr. Mellow.”
“Oh, please. Mellow men do not become homicide detectives, Petrie. They become botanists, bicycle repairmen, mathematicians, mindfulness bloggers. Organic gardeners. Zen monks.”
“Call me Sam.” He bent to smell her hair and she arched away, a tremor rippling through her body. “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”
Laughter vibrated through her. She mouthed the word. Bullshit.
His hand slid over her warm curves, shadowy dips and hollows. He wanted to eat up her delicate scent. Devour it in one breath. Miles could break down those pheromones into their chemical components and list their molecular formulas. But for Sam, it wasn’t chemistry.
It was magic. Crazy, balls-deep enthrallment.
“You just won’t give me a break,” he murmured against her throat. “And I know why. You want to know my theory about you?”
She flinched away as he cupped her jaw, letting her delicate, wispy ringlets tickle his wrist. Insubstantial as a puff of breath.
“No, Petrie,” she said. “To be honest, not really.”
“I’m telling you anyway.” He nuzzled the whorl of hair below her ear and dragged his lips over the edge of that crimson birthmark. “That day in Bruno’s studio. It was too good for you.”
A burst of laughter shook her. “Really?”
“It made you forget,” he insisted. “For a little while, it was just you and me in the room. No evil vor, no organ pirates. No past. No future.”
“Marco was there. In his crib,” she corrected, primly.
“Whatever. You’re so wound up in this scary story of almost getting your heart ripped out. It defines you. It freaks you out, to be cut loose from that. It makes you feel lost. Scared.”
“Petrie, do everyone a favor, and don’t take up psychology.”
“You lost yourself,” he persisted. “I could help you find it again.”
The frown line between her brows deepened. “You’re so arrogant.”
“That day when I touched you. You came so hard. I dream about it at night. Wake up shaking. Drenched in sweat. So fucking hard.”
She shook her head. “Please,” she whispered.
He rubbed his cheek against that loose, gleaming topknot. “It scared you, baby. You thought you were going to die. But you won’t. I’ll take care of you. You won’t fall to pieces. Or if you do, it’ll only be for a few seconds, and I’ll hold you all together. I’ll hold you so tight. I’ll keep you so safe.” He tasted her, trailing his lips down to her collarbone.
“Sam,” she breathed out. “Please.”
“I’ll make it so good. I’ll get you off like that, over and over. I won’t be rough. I won’t scare you, and I won’t hurt you. Just . . . trust me.”
She looked up to meet his eyes. He went very still. The raw pain blazing out of them jolted him right out of his seduction schtick.
“I don’t know how to trust like that,” she said. “I just . . . can’t. I’m really not playing hard to get. You tempt me, yes. But I hold back because I just don’t have what you want. It’s not there, Sam.”
“What makes you think so?” he asked gently.
She shook her head, eyes squeezed shut. “That mechanism, it doesn’t work, in me. I don’t mean to be a tease, or cruel, or . . . or disdainful. I never wanted to be a frigid bitch. It’s sad and it’s awful, but it’s the truth. It’s my reality, and I’m sorry if I . . . I’m just so sorry.”
He processed that. “So we’ll work on it,” he offered. “I felt a lot of potential, back there in Bruno’s office. We’ll fix it. No biggie.”
“No biggie, he says.” Her voice was strangled. “Don’t try to rescue me from my past. You’ll just hurt yourself. It’s bigger than you are.”
“How would you know how big I am?”
She shot him a glance and snorted, reddening.
“I didn’t say it,” he crowed, delighted. “It was you.”
“English is not my first language,” she said haughtily. “Don’t try to trap me in word games. I will never get the joke.”
She wasn’t pulling away. He stroked her shoulders, encountered the straps that held up the cups of gathered fabric that her perfect tits were nestled in. He flicked the ribbons down. Her eyes widened as the fabric slid down—catching on her nipples. She jerked her hands up—
Or tried to. He caught them up short, staring into her eyes as the cups slid down to dangle over the shell of the bustier.
She didn’t fight, didn’t flail. Just stood there, breath stuttering rapidly in and out. Her high, beautiful breasts bared to him.
“You are so beautiful,” he whispered. “I’ve lain awake nights staring at the ceiling, imagining you exactly like this.”
He felt his way, slowly. Using those secret senses that jolted to life only when she was near. Eyes and ears that opened only for her. He strained for more. He wanted inside her hidden depths, to take possession. He waited, savoring the tension, until he dared to risk sliding his hands up to cup her breasts, with fingers that trembled.
A ripple went through her, then a sighing, barely audible moan. He caressed her, tender, spiraling whorls over and around her taut, deep pink nipples, the soft, plump under-curve, the tender fullness. So perfect. Springy, luscious. Suckable. But not now, because she’d rested her head on his shoulders, and the slight, warm weight of her head upon him was such a miracle in itself, he didn’t dare mess with it.
He inhaled her scent. Warm and spicy and sweet. Her hair had come unpinned, and the thick horsetail draped over his arm, making him wish his arm was bare. His sleeve blocked out the live heft of that heavy silken rope. His fingers buzzed. She was actually letting him touch her. It put him in a state of trembling, worshipful awe.
She twisted around and looked up. Lips in reach.
That was it, just like the last time. Conscious control vanished.
She melted into him, arms twined around his neck. Oh, God, that sweet, tender inside flavor, the impossible softness of her lips. A swift glance yielded scant possibilities for taking this tryst horizontal. The floor was gleaming oak. Spindly legged chairs, tables with runners, antique breakables. No couches or lounges. So it was the wall again. He could deal with gravity. What was upper-body strength for, after all.
He scooped her up. A few steps, and he pinned her to the closest bare spot of wallpaper, fiercely intent upon tasting, touching, knowing more. He leaned to kiss her breasts, and she moaned, rib cage heaving, fingers twining in his hair. He lifted armfuls of skirt, slid his hand up her thigh. Hot, smooth. Stretchy lace, soft skin, filmy silk stretched over tender girl parts, the moisture seeping through. The heat, the wet. He couldn’t wait to taste it. Lick it. Get inside. Deep inside. Oh, God, now. The wanting was a huge, feral beast inside him, clawing to get out.
Her thighs trembled. He slid his finger under the elastic, into silky folds that yielded sweetly, pressing deeper into a hot, slick paradise—
Rap, rap, rap. “Sveti? Sveti! Petrie? You in there?”
Rap, rap rap rap rap, louder and sharper. Tam’s voice. A brief pause and then again, rattling at the locked door. Rap, rap, rap. “Sveti? Goddamnit, answer me!” Her voice was sharp with alarm.
Fuck. What, was he under some kind of a curse?
Sveti struggled out of his grip, batting his hands away. She smoothed her hair, shoehorned her tits back into the satin cups, wiping her mouth, all to no avail. She still looked like a woman who’d just been madly making out. Tousled, flushed, damp, dazed, blurred. Fuckable.
“Just a second!” she called, her voice shaking. “Coming!”
Oh, how he wished. It wouldn’t have taken long to get her off, and explosively. She’d been almost there. It was so goddamn cruel.
Sveti jerked her chin toward the door. “Open it for them.”
He did so reluctantly, as it rattled on its hinges.
“Sveti, open this goddamn door or I will break it down!”
Oh, man. Nick Ward’s voice. He was meat. He snapped the lock and leaped swiftly back as the door flew open. Nick, Tam, and Val burst through. They stared at Sveti. Color streaked her cheekbones. Her makeup was a blotchy mask. Their accusing gaze swiveled to Sam.
“What the fuck is going on?” Nick demanded.
“Where’s Miles?” Tam asked.
Sam shrugged. “He had some urgent stuff to do.”
“Did he?” Tam’s gaze dropped to Sam’s crotch, which was still not quite presentable, despite the stressful and disappointing situation. Her mouth tightened. “I’m going to have a talk with him about that.”
“Don’t bother,” Sveti said. “Sam was just keeping me company. I seem to remember you bullying and threatening him to do so.”
“I didn’t tell him to get whisker burn all over your tits,” Tam said.
“Oh, shut up,” Sveti flared.
There was an awkward silence. Val spoke, his voice modulated to soothe. “Go on out, Sveti. Our uninvited guest has left the premises.”
“Um, who’s that?” Sveti kept compulsively smoothing her hair.
Tam rolled her eyes. “Who, she asks? You were having a seizure about Oleg fifteen minutes ago.” She gave Sam an appraising glance. “Never thought I’d say this, cop, but it appears you’re good. Who knew?”
He didn’t dare reply. Acknowledging that dangerous compliment could be his definitive bolt-cutter moment.
Sveti tossed her hair back. “Good, then. I’m glad he’s gone.”
“So are we all,” Tam said. “Time for you to call it a night. I’ve told Josh to get your coat. He’ll—”
“I’ll give her a ride home,” Sam said.
“No!” Everyone in the room, including Sveti, said it in unison.
Sam sighed. “Or not.” Fuck him. Whatever.
Cattrell strode in. “I couldn’t find her jacket. Tell me which—”
“No, you stay here,” Sveti said. “I’ll go alone.”
“Alone?” Cattrell looked confused. “They said you needed a ride!”
“I’ll get home by myself,” she said. “Give the ride to the lucky girl from the catering staff. Whichever one you pick for the night.”
Cattrell looked huffy. “We’ve been through this. I told you that I’m not interested in—”
“She knows,” Tam cut in. “Don’t flatter yourself. Puppy.”
“Stop interfering, Tam!” Sveti snapped. “It’s okay, Josh. I appreciate the thought, but I can call my own car.” Her eyes flicked to Sam. “Thank you all for a truly memorable evening.” She swept out.
Shit. The point of coming here had just walked out. The point of staying away was arrayed before him, between him and the door.
Josh Cattrell whistled softly. “Jeez. What’s up with her?”
Tam pointed at Sam. “Him,” she said. “He’s up with her.”
“Him?” The guy’s eyes got round. “You mean, you’re the cop?”
His fists clenched. “You were supposed to scare me off, right?”
“Didn’t work very well,” Nick observed.
“Sure didn’t,” Sam agreed. “The human shield here was too busy playing grab-ass with the catering staff to do his fucking job.”
“You sound like you are blaming him.” Val’s faintly accented voice sounded amused. “It was lucky for you that he failed, no?”
“No, love.” The sweetness in Tam’s voice made his neck prickle. “He’s not feeling lucky. Maybe if we’d arrived five minutes later.”
He would have made it last longer than five minutes, but this hardly seemed the time or the company for that particular assertion.
“What the hell are you doing, Sam?” Nick’s voice was menacing.
“Minding my business,” Sam said, from behind clenched teeth.
“Sveti is our business,” Tam told him.
“Sveti’s an adult.” He barrelled through them, promptly disgusted at himself for stating it, which implied that it needed to be stated.
“I’m not comfortable with this,” Nick growled.
“Nobody asked you to be.” Sam struggled not to cringe as he brushed past Tam, who could poison him with an earring post. Tam’s exclusive jewelry line was named Deadly Beauty. Costly bling loaded with blades, explosives, or poisons. Sam wished he didn’t know about it. Not that he currently represented the law, but ignorance was bliss, if you could maintain it with any sort of credibility.
He slunk out of the place like a whipped hound and drove one-handed, to keep the hand that had gotten inside Sveti’s sweet body right under his nose. He would have licked it clean, but then her heady scent would be gone from his finger too soon.
And that kind of waste was criminal.
End of Excerpt