Aug 1, 2003

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Standing In The Shadows

Book Two in The McCloud Series

Ex-FBI agent Connor McCloud can never forget the day he was set up to die at the hands of trusted friend and fellow agent Ed Riggs. Hard justice and loyalty to his badge have cost Connor what he wants most–Ed’s shy, studious daughter, Erin. He can never have her now, but her beauty still haunts and torments his every waking hour and his most fevered erotic dreams. But now that his old enemy, Kurt Novak has returned, Connor is prepared to do anything to protect the vulnerable young woman from a killer who has vowed a brutal payback . . . a killer with a predator’s lethal patience.

Erin has been harboring secret fantasies about Connor McCloud since she first laid eyes on him–but that was before his testimony sent her father to jail. Her world is falling apart and it’s all she can do to hold her family together. But now Connor is knocking on her door, telling her she needs his protection, whether she wants it or not. He won’t give up and he won’t stay away. He’s sworn to guard her life with his own and his fierce protectiveness awakens long-buried feelings–and a fiery sexuality deep within her soul . . .

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Connor eased the Cadillac into a parking space on the airport skyway level, and glanced at his watch. Erin’s plane wasn’t due to land for twenty minutes. It would take ten minutes or so to for her to disembark and make her way to the luggage claim, where Ranier’s limo driver was supposed to meet her.

Over his dead body.

His eyes fell on the sheaf of info that Davy had gleaned on Claude Ranier, scattered across the passenger seat. He’d memorized every fact. He should be relieved that Erin’s mystery client checked out, but the ghost hand was squeezing his throat even harder. His instincts had never played him false before—but he’d never been in such a fucked-up state before, either. Even Sean and Davy thought he was going off the deep end. That made him feel so alone.

But he couldn’t let it go. Not if Erin was at stake.

The only plan he’d come up with so far was to spirit her away from the airport without making a scene. A neat trick, considering that the old you-are-in-mortal-danger-and-only-I-can-save-you line had fallen pretty flat last night. He’d never been that smooth with the ladies. That was Sean’s special talent, not his.

Thinking about Sean made him glance self-consciously into the rear-view mirror. He’d made an effort today, but it hadn’t done a whole lot of good. He’d put on the nicest shirt he could find, a rough-weave beige designer thing, a Christmas gift from the ever-hopeful Sean. The shirt still had the creases from the packaging, and his chinos were crumpled from their sojourn at bottom of the clean laundry basket, but that was just too bad. There were some lengths to which he would not go, and ironing was one of them.

But he’d shaved. He’d combed his unruly blond mane, forced it to lie as smoothly as possible in a thick ponytail. His hair had always had a mind of its own. He should probably just chop it all off. Problem with cutting your hair, though, was that then you had to keep on cutting it. All the time. Big pain in the ass.

Oh, Christ, enough already. This wasn’t a goddamn beauty contest. If he’d come here sporting his usual Clan of the Cave Bear hairdo, the airport National Guardsmen would’ve hauled him away before he even got in the door. Even decently groomed, dragging a beautiful, protesting young woman through an international airport was a delicate undertaking. The trick would be in that fateful split second that Erin caught sight of him.

He’d be lucky if she didn’t scream.

He let his breath out slowly. He felt so damn nervous. He’d looked death in the face plenty of times and kept his cool, but one quiet, self-possessed girl scared him to death. Maybe he really was losing it. Interpol was dead sure that Novak was in Europe. Nick was convinced that Novak was no threat to Erin. Her mystery client checked out. There was no reason he could put his finger on to follow her around and hassle her. So why?

Fuck it. He just had to. It was one of those bone-deep feelings that could not be reasoned with. He shoved the Mueller papers into the glove compartment and got out of the car.

He could torture himself all day, and he would just keep limping along, following marching orders from an authority deep inside himself. His conscience, maybe. Davy and Sean called it his hero complex. He himself sometimes referred to it as dumber than shit, particularly when it almost got him killed.

It didn’t really matter what it was called. Fact #1, he was doing a stupid, self-destructive thing that could prove to be dangerous, not to mention embarrassing. Fact #2, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop himself. Conclusion?

Go for it.

First he checked out the shuttle carousel in the luggage claim, to see who was waiting for Erin. Sure enough, a big, dark-haired, Spanish looking guy in a uniform was holding a sign that read “Erin Riggs.” Connor scanned the rest of the crowd. His plan would only work if Erin hadn’t checked her luggage. Chances were good she just had a carry-on, but with women, you never knew.
And she wouldn’t take kindly to being separated from her bag. Hell hath no fury like a woman deprived of her toiletries.

He took the escalator back up. There was a quivery feeling in his belly. He glanced at his watch. Eight minutes. He sauntered over to the Coffee People booth in the mall, bought a cup, drank it down faster than he should. He fingered the bag of tobacco in his pocket. He should have had the presence of mind to have a quick smoke outside. Damn smoke-free environments.

Three more minutes to wait. Coffee had been a big mistake. He studied the people around him. A woman with a baby and a four year old boy jumping up and down, waiting for his dad to come home.

An elderly couple, their faces creased with smiles as they waited for their grandkids. Finally, the shuttle passengers started trickling out. One minute . . . two . . . and there she was, dressed in a deep green suit. Hair swept up, gleaming. Gold earrings dangled beneath her ears. She looked so gorgeous, he wanted to kick himself for not at least attempting to iron the shirt. It wouldn’t have killed him to try.

Too late for regrets. She was wheeling a carry-on suitcase behind her, thank God. Time to put his half-assed plan into action.

His heart slammed against his ribs like a jackhammer as she came through the gate. She still hadn’t caught sight of him. He chose a diagonal collision course that brought him up right behind her, and grabbed her arm. “Hey, sweetheart.”

She spun around. He took full advantage of her shocked confusion and yanked her closer, staring down into wide, startled gold-brown eyes. Her mouth was moist with tinted lip gloss, hanging open in adorable confusion.

“Good to see you again, babe.” He scooped her close and tight against his body, and kissed her.
She stiffened, latching onto his upper arms for balance. She made a soft, frightened sound against his mouth.

He deepened the kiss, sliding his arm to the deep flare of her hip, splaying his hand over her beautiful ass. He hadn’t planned on kissing her. The impulse had sneaked up on him, but it was perfect. Inspired. It all looked like lovers’ play, and that soft, luscious mouth of hers was too busy to complain.

Then her scent rose up around him, like a hot pink cloud, and his mind went blank. It was spring-like and tangy and sweet. Intensely female. A secret weapon that he was unprepared for. He wanted to gasp in huge, gulping lungfuls of it, like a man who’d been trapped underwater and finally reaches air.

Her scent blended with her taste, just as silky sweet, and a confusion of soft, unbelievable textures, the yielding tenderness of her lips, the satiny wisps of hair at the nape of her neck, her baby smooth skin. His senses were overwhelmed.

She vibrated in his arms, a delicate tremor like a trapped bird. He forgot about Novak, about the airport, about the National Guardsmen. He forgot everything but his own desperate, clawing need to coax her mouth to open, to taste more of her.

She flung her head back, gasping for air. A stain of wild-rose pink was burned into her cheeks, startling against the delicate gold tone of her skin. Her pupils were black wells ringed with jewel-toned agate brown. Sunset, honey and chocolate. Her dark, curling lashes fluttered with dazed confusion.

She licked her lips. “Connor? What . . . what are you—”

He shifted to keep her off balance and slanted his mouth across her lips again. He slid his hand down her graceful spine and pressed her against his lower body as he cupped the nape of her neck. He dove deep into one of those waves-crashing-on-the-beach kisses, sweet and devouring and desperate. When he finally released her, he was trembling harder than she was.

She dragged in a deep, hitching breath. He leaned his hot forehead against hers, making a cage of privacy with his cupped hands around their faces. “Shhh,” he murmured. He grabbed the suitcase out of her hand. “Let’s go.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her along with him. She had to scurry to keep up. “Go where?” Her voice was still soft and uncertain. Not yet an attention-getting bellow of outrage. “Connor, please. I—”

This time he bent her over backwards so that she had to cling to his neck to stay on her feet. He moved his mouth across her lips, muffling her protests until finally she was just holding on, swaying. He pressed soft kisses over her face, her throat, and nuzzled the perfumed, tickling wisps at her neck.

“Shhh,” he urged. “Trust me.”

Into those big revolving doors, and he’d be home free.

“Trust you?” Her voice shook as he swept her into movement once again. “About what? Connor, I’m supposed to meet someone at baggage claim! Slow down!”

She was starting to splutter and struggle in his grasp, but they were out the revolving door, and he was hustling her across the skyway. No airport security. Just travelers going about their business, shooting them the occasional curious glance.

Erin dug in her heels and dragged him to a halt. “Wait a goddamn minute, Connor McCloud, and—no! Don’t you dare kiss me again!” She shrank away. “That’s a dirty trick! That’s not fair!”

“I never claimed to be fair.” He stared at her tender, reddened lips and realized that he was panting. Openmouthed, like an animal. He grabbed her hand and yanked her along. “Hurry.”

“To what? For what? What the hell are you doing here?”

They were in the parking garage elevator well, bells were pinging, doors were about to open, and she was gathering her breath to yell at him again. He wrapped his arms around her and slid his tongue into her mouth.

A tiny squeak, a speechless gasp, and she went limp.

So far this had gone more smoothly than his wildest hopes. The only trick would be getting himself to stop kissing her. She was so sweet. He could get lost in the sensual world of her moist, yielding mouth. He could get sucked in. Forget his own name.

He waited until the elevators emptied and the people had cleared out before he dared to release her. He cupped her face in his hands, stared into her eyes. Trying to communicate his urgency with all the force of his will. It actually seemed to work. He took her by the arm. She stumbled after him, unresisting.

He popped open his trunk, flung in her stone-heavy suitcase, and slammed it shut. “Let’s go.”

She wrenched herself out of his grasp. “Wait. I’m not going anywhere with you, Connor. Explain yourself to me. Right now.”

Whatever spell the kiss had cast was short-lived. He backed her up against the Cadillac and boxed her in with his arms.

“I’m driving you to the coast,” he said. “I’m booking us a room in a different hotel. Tomorrow I accompany you to that meeting. Afterwards, I drive you home. Any questions?”

“Connor, I told you last night I didn’t want a bodyguard—”

“Too bad.”

She shoved against his chest. “I refuse to be pushed around. You have no right. You can’t—oh!”

“Watch me.” He shoved her back against the car, bending her over backwards. She blinked up at him, her chest heaving.

He knew it wasn’t fair to intimidate her with his size and his strength. It didn’t work in the long term anyway, it was just a quick and dirty temporary solution, but she was so warm, her tits straining against her blouse. He felt every tremor that rippled through her soft, pliant body. And her scent was a low-down, nasty trick. A drug that went straight to his head and made him stupid.

Her thick eyelashes swept down, veiling her eyes. She wiggled against him, unintentionally sensual. “Connor,” she whispered. “Please. This isn’t right.”

“I’m holding your suitcase hostage, Erin. I mean business.”

“I am not your responsibility, Connor.” Her voice had a stern, lecturing tone that was strangely at odds with the vulnerable pose of her body. “You have no right. I can decide for myself—”

“I have to do this,” he broke in. “You know why?”

He waited to answer his own question until her eyes flicked up to his. “Because this is what your dad would’ve done,” he said flatly. “He had the right to shove you around, but he’s not here.”

Her mouth opened. Nothing came out. He seized her chin and forced her to meet his eyes again. “You’ve got no clue, Erin. No clue what Novak is capable of. Do we understand each other?”

She licked her lips, her throat bobbing. “But it’s so rude!”

He was totally lost. “Rude? Who? Me?”

Her mouth tightened. “Yes, you, now that you mention it, but I wasn’t referring to you. There’s a driver waiting for me. It’s rude to just not show up without even calling them!”

He was so startled, he laughed out loud. “Is that all? Who cares if Mueller’s flunky waits at the airport? He won’t get his feelings hurt.”

She frowned. “If I had wanted to change the travel arrangements, I should’ve notified them in advance! I can’t just—”

“So call them when we get to the coast. Tell them you had a change of plans. You met someone, you brought someone. Tell them your boyfriend decided to come along at the last minute.”

“Boyfriend?” She shrank back.

“Why not?” He couldn’t keep his eyes from her breasts, which were straining the buttons of her blouse to their utmost. “Don’t you think they’d buy it? A woman like you, and a lowlife like me?”

She shoved him away, clearing just enough space for her to stand up. “Stop acting like a lowlife, Connor McCloud, if you don’t want to be taken for one!”

“You’re pissed at me because I kissed you?” His voice was dangerously unsteady. “I dared to touch the princess with my rude hands. Is that what’s bothering you?”

She made a break for it, trying to duck out from under his arm. He blocked her. She straightened up, adjusted her jacket, tugged her skirt into place. She wasn’t up to a physical tussle with him. She couldn’t win it, and dignity was more important to her.

“To be perfectly truthful, no,” she said stiffly. “That’s not what’s bothering me at all. It’s just not that flattering to have a man kiss you only because he wants to shut you up.”

He pulled that statement to pieces in an instant, looking at it from every side. Then he waited until curiosity compelled her eyes to flick up again. He stroked her exquisitely soft cheek with his thumb until the pink stain deepened to wild rose. He looked around. No one to see or hear. No reason at all to shut her up.

He kissed her again.

He wasn’t sure what he expected. Maybe for her to stiffen up, shove him away. Anything but the roar of heat swelling inside him, the dazzling explosion of sparks. She clutched his upper arms; for balance, to pull him closer, he couldn’t tell, he didn’t care. He coaxed her mouth open. He wanted to touch that succulent pink tongue, to dance with it. He didn’t mean to stick his hand in her jacket, he just found his calluses snagging her blouse as he explored the exquisite heft of her tits, the small nipples tightening under his palm. He had no deliberate intention of pressing the aching bulge of his crotch against her.

Jesus. What was he thinking? They were in an airport parking garage. He’d come down her to protect her.

Fucking her was not part of the plan.

He pulled away, with enormous effort. “I wasn’t trying to shut you up that time,” he said raggedly. “You feel flattered now?”

 

 

End of Excerpt

Kensington Brava | Aug 1, 2003

ISBN-10: 0758204531

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