Sep 1, 2012

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One Wrong Move

Book Nine in The McCloud Series

SECRETS NEVER DIE

Alex Aaro has spent most of his life on the run from his Ukrainian mafia family. But when he learns that crazy Aunt Tonya, the only relative who ever gave a damn about him, is dying, he risks returning home to say goodbye. He’s prepared for anything except the call from his friend, Bruno Ranieri, that sends him on a wild and dangerous ride with a mysterious woman who holds a deadly secret and a white hot passion that binds them together.

Social worker Nina Christie has no idea how much trouble she’s in when her Aunt Helga shows up unexpectedly, emaciated and bleeding, and injects Nina with an unknown drug. Now a ruthless crime syndicate will stop at nothing to make Nina disappear, and only Alex Aaro, that inscrutable six-foot-four rock hard slab of lean muscle, stands between her and certain death. Now Nina and Alex are in a race against time, death, and their desire for one another . . .

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“What?” he said, his voice testy. “What’s with the look?”

She couldn’t think of a lie fast enough, so the truth fell right out. “I was trying to read your mind,” she said.

He gave her a look from under hooded eyes, making her notice how long his eyelashes were. “What did you see?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“You don’t need to read my mind to know what I’m thinking. There are other indicators.” He paused. “Big ones,” he added.

She stared fixedly as the apartment buildings, storefronts and schools crawled by. Bastard. Messing with her head. Heat and sweat, rising in her body. She must look like a tomato. And now they were mired in a snarl of rush hour traffic. No end in sight.

“We’re going to be here for hours,” she muttered.

“Get down.” He gripped her leg below the knee, pulling it so that her bottom slid forward over the slippery leather seat. His touch set off tingling sparkles, even through the layers of rayon and linen.

“Stop that.” She batted his hand away.

Aaro slid down to join her, but the position forced him to fold one leg up double against the back of the driver’s seat, and angle the other one sideways, in her direction. So that his knee gently prodded hers. Contact, again. More tingles, more ripples. “I said, stop,” she snapped.

He have her a measured look. “Can’t help it,” he murmured. “I’m just . . . . really long.”

“Would you stop it with the penis references, Aaro?” she snapped.

“You said it, not me.” He looked away, but she could tell from the eye crinkles over the jut of his cheekbone that he was grinning.

Heat rose into her face. His slow-spreading grin maddened her. “What?” she almost yelled. “What’s the smirk about?”

“Don’t freak out,” he said. “It’s normal. What you’re feeling.”

“What do you know about my feelings?”

He gave her an offhand shrug. “Happens to me, too,” he said. “It’s normal. Post-combat stress reaction. Don’t sweat it.”

Oh, for God’s sake, was he suggesting . . . her eyes flicked down to peek at his muscular thigh, to see if he—

Yes. He was. And she’d fallen right into his trap. He was laughing, under his breath, a deep, quiet rumble. Smug, self-satisfied bastard.

“Mind in the gutter?” he asked softly. “Don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone down there.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, but it was impossible to block him out. He was overwhelming in the small space. Feelings pulsed through her, breath-stealing and heavy. The pull. Hot yearning. What the hell?

“You’re dreaming,” she whispered, swallowing hard.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I can still smell your hair. My hands remember everything. The curve of your back. The feel of your skin. Your hair, over my arm. You know those dimples over your tailbone?”

“No,” she said. “And I do not want to know anything you might want to say about them. So zip it.”

He ignored that. “I want to lick them,” he whispered dreamily. “I want to memorize that creamy perfect dent shape. With my tongue.”

His words awakened sensory receptors in each of the places he had mentioned, and transformed them into erogenous zones. Tendrils of heat curled out of them, tightening her nipples, clenching her toes.

“I can’t believe you just said that to me.” Her voice was strangled.

“Neither do I,” he admitted. “I don’t usually talk this much. Talking gets me into trouble.”

“That I can well believe,” she said fervently.

His grin carved grooves into his lean cheek. “But not this kind of trouble,” he said. “This kind is special.”

“Special how?” It popped out before she could squelch it. She had only herself to blame, for egging him on. Stupid woman.

“Specially insane,” he said. “Coming on to a woman like you.”

Outraged vanity jolted her bolt upright. “A woman like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

His hand clamped on her knee and yanked her back down. “Keep your head low,” he said. “You know what I mean. A woman like you, with the all baggage and the expectations.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.

“Then you’re playing dumb,” he said calmly. “I mean, the kind of woman who’d get all uptight when I cut out in the morning before she wakes up. And then don’t call.”

She snorted. “Why am I not surprised.”

“I like to keep things casual,” he said. “I’m not looking for attachments. I’m always up front about that. Always.”

That bugged her intensely, that he’d pegged her as a clingy, needy leech, more trouble than she was worth. “What makes you think I’m so hungry for attachment?”

“All women want attachment,” he said. “Unless they’re damaged.”

“So do men.” She wasn’t sure why she was arguing with him, or even what they were arguing about, but he’d irritated the living bejesus out of her, and she couldn’t stop. “Unless they’re damaged, too.”

“Right,” he said. “There you have it.”

“So you’re telling me you’re damaged goods?”

“Duh,” he said.

A heavy silence followed his blunt assertion. She looked away, angry and restless and bothered. “Wow, Aaro. How very seductive.”

His shoulders lifted. “Just telling it how it is.”

“OK,” she said, shaky and angry. “Message received, loud and clear. I appreciate the warning, but it’s unnecessary. I want nothing at all from you. And I’m damaged goods, too, for the record. So drop it right now, before we both say things we’ll regret.”

“I knew you were,” he said. “Damaged goods, I mean. I can see it from your look. You dress to disappear, and somehow, you pull it off, even with a body like yours. It’s a fucking miracle, I’m telling you. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Just a hell of a thing.”

She was alarmed. She’d tried to kill this conversation, and instead, it was spiraling out of control. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “And I didn’t ask for a critique of my fashion sense, or my—“

“You didn’t, but we all get stuff we don’t ask for. Want to know the weird part, though?” His keen, narrowed eyes were fixed on her, hot with fascination. “My dick is still as hard as cement.”

She jerked back against the door. “Don’t talk to me like that.”

She hated how she sounded. Tight, tense, prissy. One of those silly, not-worth-the-trouble women, full of baggage and expectations.

“I’m not usually this bad,” he said. “I mostly keep my trap shut. But I guess, once you’ve killed two guys, dragged a stark-naked girl out of a bullet ridden closet and then gone through a drive-by shooting with her, you feel entitled to skip the small talk.”

That sneaky bastard, taking up all the oxygen molecules. It wasn’t fair. His long, lean, graceful body was sprawled on the seat in apparent relaxation, but he wasn’t relaxed. He buzzed with intensity. As ready for action like a panther poised to spring. It unnerved her. The heaviness of the air. His hooded eyes kept pulling her gaze back to his.

“Who would know, to look at you?” he almost whispered.

“Know what?” she squeaked back.

“How soft your skin is,” he said.

Her face got hot. Her breath snagged, stuck.

“The way your hair swirls down into those wisps that brush top of your ass. The hollow, here.” He touched her collar bone, hidden under the buttoned blouse. She jerked back as if his finger were a brand.

“It’s so funny, that thing you do with your lip,” he went on. “You’ve got a gorgeous mouth, but you suck it in, squeeze out all the pink color and that round pouty shape. Does it embarrass you, to have lips that make guys think about sex?”

“Stop,” she warned. Please. Before she fainted.

“And those tits.” He shook his head in wonderment. “Women would pay huge money for world-class tits like that. That perfect pear shape, those pointy brown nipples, mmm.” He made a caressing molding gesture with his hands. “But you hide them under a tent. It’s a secret. Right? Nobody can know. Or the sky will fall down.”

Her nipples, on being nominated, were making a spectacle of themselves, poking through jumper and blouse without the benefit of her minimizer bra with its fierce underwires and its modesty cups.

She sucked in her lip, noticed herself doing it, noticed him notice. So much to feel self-conscious about. It was worse even than when she’d been naked. “I don’t . . . I’m not—“

“But I know. Because I saw it.” His voice was a charm, working on her like an actual physical touch. Like a silk scarf trailing over her naked skin, subtle as a whorl of smoke. “Am I the only one who knows what’s under there? All that bounty? Jesus, is that even possible?”

Nina sucked in air designated for telling him to stop talking trash, but it got trapped in her lungs when he hooked her skirt, and lifted it, exposing her knee. The fabric tickled her legs. She coughed, to shock her voice back into functioning. “You’re messing with my head, Aaro.”

“It messes with mine, that you’ve got no underwear.” His voice was pitched just for her ears. “I never said I was fair. Or smart, because coming on to you is stupid. Like, cutting my own throat stupid.”

His words were offensive, but she couldn’t call him on it. Not with her throat quivering like this. Her lungs finally released when he broke eye contact, to look at the street signs. He checked the time on his cell phone, and slanted her a thoughtful glance. “In this traffic, I estimate we’ll get to the car rental place in about twenty minutes.”

His meaningful pause made her toes curl. “Um . . . meaning?”

“Meaning if you slid down a little bit more, all those folds of tent fabric would actually come in useful. They give us privacy. I could slide my hand up your thigh . . .” He touched her knee, and leg jerked nervously. “Feel your skin as my hand slides up. Just my fingertips, barely touching you. Taking my time. Until the edge of my hand touches the swirl of your muff, right over your clit. That vortex. Like a cowlick. But I better not even think about licking. Licking’s for later.”

Stop it. She mouthed the words, but the sound wouldn’t follow, and he wasn’t looking at her face, he was looking at her thigh, part of which was now bare. His big hand closed over her knee.

And her knee felt so very warm. Sparkly and strange.

“When my hand got up to the hot stuff, I’d brush the tip of my finger up and down your slit.” His voice was barely audible. “Until you started to make noise, move against me. Then I’d open you up, play with your clit, until you were slick and juicy. I’d slide my finger into your pussy, really slow. Feeling inside you, petting and stroking, listening to how you breath, still diddling your clit. Until I feel what kind of touch makes you wild. And I’ll work it . . . slow and soft, deep and hard, whatever you like. Show me as we go. Until you come and come and come. As many times as the trip allows.”

“You are outrageous.” The words had no air behind them.

“Yeah.” His teeth flashed. “Thinking with the little head. Gets you ever time. My mouth is watering, imagining it.” He lifted his hand, clenched it, flexed it. “My finger is tingling, just thinking bout putting it inside you,” he murmured.

She dragged her tattered dignity together. “I’m impressed with your altruism.”

He shot her a sidelong look. “Nobody’s ever accused me of altruism before,” he said. “How do you calculate?”

“This erotic scenario you’re describing. Other than your tingling finger, it’s all for my benefit. Not a single thought for yourself. How gallant, giving all the orgasms to me. Can’t help but make a girl wonder about your agenda.”

“You’re smart to wonder.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “And yeah, there’s an agenda. It’s all about effective time management.”

That took her by surprise. “Excuse me?”

“If we play now, then when I get you to the hotel room, you’ll be ready,” he said. “What I want requires a locked door, a whole lot of girl lube. And ideally, sound-proof walls, though that’s probably too much to hope from a mid-range hotel. And after a few hours of what I’ve got in mind, you won’t be accusing me of altruism anymore.”
She blinked at him, intimidated. “Um. That sounds alarming.”

“It’ll be awesome,” he assured her. “But it’ll be very mutual. I’m a calculating, selfish dickhead, but I do excel in a few things. One is kicking asses. The other I can demonstrate to you right now. If you want. Say the word.”

His hand, resting on her knee, was a silent promise. Waves of energy pulsed from it, straight up her thigh, to pool between her legs, a hot, liquid shimmer of terrified anticipation.

The words just popped out of her. She couldn’t stop them. The ultimage buzzkill. “And afterwards?” she blurted. “What then?”

He didn’t move, but she could feel the tension that gripped the air. The silence was absolute.

“Like I told you,” he said. “My job is to keep you alive until we hook up with Bruno’s guy. After that, you’re not likely to see me again. I have my own reasons for staying as far from New York City as possible.”

“So. What you’re suggesting is just a short delay,” she said, steadily. “In taking me to this rendezvous, I mean.”

His smile transformed his face. “It would be a long delay,” he said softly. “A long, juicy, excellent delay. Nothing short about it at all.”

“And just how would you explain that to Bruno and the guy he—“

“I won’t. Bruno doesn’t have this number. He can stew in his own juices. I’ll call him when we’re done.”

When we’re done. It sounded so flat, so final. She stared down at his warm fingers, dark against her thigh, trying to think of something to say that was not either prissy or inane or disgustingly clingy.

She needed to be cool, detached. Guarded, with a guy like this. He was already too close. She gathered her wits, clenched her muscles, and opened her mouth. “So, um, this is just multitasking for you, then? Killing time while we’re stuck in traffic? You might as well get the tiresome chore of foreplay out of the way in your down time?”

“Let me do my thing,” he suggested. “Tell me afterwards if you think it was tiresome. If it felt like a chore. I know how to make a girl come. And I have grasped the concept of delayed gratification, at least when it comes to sex. That’s all that can be said for my evolutionary development, though. As for the rest of me, we’re talking rudimentary brain stem. The stuff we have in common with crocodiles and sharks. Basic motor function. Making money. Procuring food. Fight and flight.”

“You are so full of shit, Aaro,” she informed him.

That devastating grin made his eyes glow. “You’re found me out.”

The taxi lurched to a halt. Aaro’s gaze fell to her breasts, which jiggled and swayed as they rocked back against the seat.

Her face bloomed hot. “Considering the mortal danger and the mobsters and all that. Don’t you think we should be more, um, alert?”

“Nah.” His voice was offhand. “I’m plenty alert. Trust me. If I were any more alert, I’d have a heart attack.”

She choked off the urge to giggle. “So is all about living life to the fullest? Seizing the day, in the face of doom?”

“I hadn’t thought about it in those terms,” he said. “I’m not all that deep, to be honest. And I’m used to doom. But what the fuck, right? Let’s seize the day. One excuse is as good as another for me.”

She shook her head at him. “I cannot believe, after what just happened to me, that I am actually having this conversation.”

“Me, neither,” he agreed. “But I saw you before you put that bag over your head. The damage is done. Now my dick wants what it wants. I know how sexy you are. I can’t unknow it because you’re nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” she said, loftily. “I just have high standards.”

He hid his grin. “Very smart of you.”

“Bag over my head, my ass,” she grumbled.

“Let’s not talk about your ass,” he said. “At least not until you give me an answer. Then we can go into the subject. In great . . . depth.”

The nervous, high-pitched giggles went off like firecrackers, pressed behind her hand. She stared up the length of his long, lean body. Presenting himself to be admired. Arrogant jerk.

But she couldn’t stop looking, at his sharp cheekbones, his hawk nose, his intense, brooding eyes. His face was starkly handsome, even shadowed with stubble. His thick brown hair had come loose of its careless tie to hang around his jaw, barbarian warrior style. And she didn’t even like long hair on men. She’d always thought it looked affected. Not on Aaro. He was gorgeous. He exuded sexual readiness.

And she was considering it. Imagining him, naked, in action, fulfilling his heated promises. Her, enjoying it intensely, in every shuddering, succulent detail. Heart thudding, thighs clenching.

It was only the most colossally bad idea ever conceived in the history of bad ideas. She was already torn apart. No need to jump up and down on the disassembled pieces. That was what sex with Aaro would do to her. He personified everything she avoided in men. He was rude, aggressive, too big. Damaged, by his own admission. He loathed attachment, avoided intimacy. He just wanted to fuck her, plain and simple, before he handed her over to some bodyguard Bruno had found, and walked off into the sunset. He didn’t try to put any sort of spin on it, he just said it. He seethed with bad attitude, suppressed violence. He was trained to kill, easily, with no apparent remorse. Not that she could presume to criticize him for that, considering. Plus, he smoked.

No, it wouldn’t work. Fear and excitement would cancel each other out. Leave her stranded at flat zero, miserable and angry at herself for being so stupid. For doing that to herself, despite the alarms, the warnings. All for a stupid itch that longed to be scratched.

No. Not in this lifetime. Subject closed, ka-chunk, like a bank vault. She shook her head. “No.”

Aaro lifted his hand and looked away, without a word, but the silence in the taxi sagged, whump. As if the air had turned to lead.

She felt bereft, as if he had taken something from her, something she desperately needed. That sparkling energy of . . . well, she couldn’t call that a flirtation. It had been too blunt, too rude, too wierdly honest and raw and shocking. Not a flirty vibe at all.

But it had been almost, well . . . fun.

And as if she could say no to the man who was keeping her alive. As if she had anything else to offer to convince him to keep on doing it.

She muscled the stab of panic down. She wasn’t going to start trading sex. Not for anything. Now or ever. She had enough problems.

Then it occurred to her. After all the terror she’d gone through, she hadn’t given her attackers a thought for the past fifteen minutes.

Aaro’s indecent proposition had wiped it all right out of her mind.

End of Excerpt

Kensington | Sep 1, 2012

ISBN-10: 0758273479

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