Someone just cut the lights. What the hell?
Noah Gallagher put down his pen and looked around, startled, as drums began to thump from the hidden sound system of the penthouse conference room. Some exotic instrument joined in, throbbing and wailing.
The door to the conference room opened to a shimmery jingling sound, then a flash of fluttering purple. Everyone at the table was staring and murmuring.
Oh, Christ. Not possible. Noah rose to his feet, but the belly dancer was already halfway through the door, her hands weaving in a hypnotic pattern. Wide, light-catching green eyes laughed at him brazenly as she shimmied straight toward him, leading with one pulsing hip.
Her eyes caught him . . . and held him.
The world narrowed down. Whatever he was going to say or do stopped. Words were gone. Air was gone. Air didn’t matter. Nothing moved while she moved.
She had commandeered all movement. With that smile. Those eyes.
He was sitting again, with no memory of deciding to do so. His mind had gone blank. The woman was like a walking, breathing stun code, personally keyed to him. He’d always wondered how it would feel to be one of the unlucky chosen few at Midlands who’d gotten stun and kill codes embedded in their minds. His own brain implants had been bad enough. Stun and kill codes were worse.
But this dancer wasn’t a goddamn stun code. She was just a random woman, shaking her stuff. When her act was done, he’d pull it together. Exert the fucking authority he was entitled to as the CEO of Angel Enterprises.
He had exactly until the music stopped to get control of himself.
Simple enough to figure out who’d dreamed up this unwanted birthday present. His younger sister Hannah lurked by the door. The wide-angle enhancement of his sight made it possible to see the gleam in Hannah’s eyes without looking away from the belly dancer for a single second.
Not that he could have looked away.
He saw his fianceé Simone’s face with his peripheral vision. She’d chosen to sit at his side for this important meeting. It was painfully obvious from her tight, expectant smile that she was waiting for him to turn to her, to smile and laugh and make light of this stupid situation. Not just for her. For everyone in the room.
He couldn’t do it.
Try. Do an analog dive. Grab a hook. Concentrate.
A spotlight from somewhere gilded the dancer’s body, highlighting every perfect detail. Silver anklets that jingled over her small, bare feet. Golden toenails. Shapely legs flashed between purple veils that floated from a low-slung, glittering belt. The belt and top were swagged with shining chains and dangling beadwork. Still more chains, draped from an ornate headdress, dangled over her forehead and under her chin, creating a constant soft shimmer of sound.
High, full breasts quivered, lovingly presented in the spangle-studded velvet bra. She arched back, floating a purple veil edged with spangles high in the air above herself and swishing her thick fall of of glossy black hair around. Had to be fake hair, falling to well below her ass. It brushed the curve of her hips. Fanned out as she twirled.
Everything he’d monitored in his peripheral vision was gone now. He no longer saw Hannah, or Simone, or anything else. His inner vision was too busy with the vivid fantasy of that woman straddling him. Imagining her bold, sensual smile as she swayed over him, teased him. Running her fingers through her hair, lifting it, tossing it. Coiling it around her waist like a slave rope.
He wanted to rip away all the filmy veils and all the goddamn beads and chains. See her bare-assed. Bare-breasted. Yeah.
The deep curve of her waist was perfectly shaped for his fingers to grip. The curves and hollows of her belly and her hips looked so soft. Touchable.
His hands shook with the urge to reach, stroke. Seize.
The rush of erotic images ramped up his advanced visual processor into screaming overdrive. Even with eyes shielded from eighty percent of the ambient light, even using a double layer of custom-designed shield specs, his AVP combat program was off and running, scrolling a thick column of data analysis past his inner eye.
And even that couldn’t distract him from her show. Not for one instant.
His heightened senses reached out, so greedy for more that he found himself actually taking off the back-up shield specs. He’d have popped out the contacts, too, but his AVP was already going nuts at the lower protection level. Combine that with adrenaline, and a huge blast of sexual arousal—fuck.
The light level in this room could zap him into a stress flashback if he didn’t protect his eyes. Not only that. The dark shield strength contact lenses hid the animal flash of amber luminosity caused by his visual implants. Outsiders couldn’t be allowed to see that. The room was packed with outsiders. He wanted them gone.
Especially Simone. Which made him a total asshole. He tried hard, really hard, to feel guilty. Not so much as a twinge. His conscious mind had been almost totally hijacked by the dancer.
He wanted to throw everyone else out and lock the door. Study that woman with his naked eyes, dancing under the spotlight. But only for him. He wanted to gulp in the whole data flow. It was being filtered out in real time and lost to him forever, and it drove him . . . fucking . . . nuts.
And he couldn’t do a thing. Not with an audience. His fists clenched in fury.
Heart racing, temperature spiking. Sweating profusely. No way to hide it. It was an AVP stress dump. A massive dose of fight-and-conquer energy, channeling straight into his dick, which strained desperately against his pants.
He struggled to grab onto the analog hooks that he’d established. His hooks were emergency mental shortcuts, activating an instant, deep withdrawal into the ice caves of his subconscious mind when the AVP got out of control. Best way he could devise to calm his stress reactions and stay on top of himself.
Not a hook to be had. Couldn’t find them, couldn’t feel them. Couldn’t use his highly developed power of visualization at all, after years of grueling practice. All gone.
He was fully occupied imagining that woman naked and writhing beneath him.
His intense reaction to this spectacle made no sense. He’d seen belly dancing before and been unmoved. He did not have complicated fantasies or fetishes. He didn’t even get the fun factor. He wasn’t known for his sense of humor. In fact, he had no imagination at all, unless you counted biotech engineering designs, or plotting ways to grow his business, or scheming to keep his chosen family alive, secret, and safe.
That demanding enterprise left no bandwidth for fun and games.
He wasn’t playful about sex, either. He was tireless, focused. Relentless in making sure that his partners were satisfied. To the point of exhaustion, even. Theirs, not his. They would tell him he was the hottest lover ever and then call him cold.
So? Noah didn’t do emotions. Cold was safer for everyone concerned.
Not that he could explain that to whoever happened to be in bed with him.
He couldn’t change his nature. He saw to it that his lovers had many orgasms to his one, to compensate for those mysterious intangibles. Whatever the fuck else they wanted from him, it just wasn’t there. He didn’t even know where to look for it.
The dancer’s arms lifted, swayed. He inhaled the scent of her dewy skin as she spun closer. Fresh, sweet, hot. Sun on the flowers. Rain on the grass. His mouth watered.
Since what happened at Midlands, his senses were sharper than normal by many orders of magnitude. He had ways to blunt the overload, but not this time. He was catching a full data load now, shields and all. Tripping out on her undulating hand movements.
He was reading her energy signature, right through the shield lenses. A cloud of hot, brilliant colors surrounded her. Her floating purple veils blended with trailing clouds of her body’s energy, to which his AVP overstimulated brain assigned all the colors of the spectrum and more besides. Colors not visible to anyone but him.
Along with it a strange sensation was growing. Tension, anticipation. Dread.
He was used to being alone in an insulated bubble. Other people’s drama raged outside that protective barrier and left him completely untouched. He needed it that way to stay in control. Maintaining isolation required constant effort and vigilance.
Now, suddenly, he wasn’t alone. The girl had danced through his force field. Invaded his inner space. It was messy and crowded in there now.
She took up room. Confused him with her colors, her scents. Her smile was so unforced and sensual. She was bonelessly flexible, yet still regal in her diaphanous veils.
It made him jittery to have someone so close. The intimacy felt awkward. Ticklish.
He felt hot, red. No control over his face. Stuck here, sitting among colleagues and family, right next to his fianceé. Any one of them could watch him watch her. At least the massive conference table concealed his colossal hard-on.
He had not felt this helpless since Midlands.
Her luminous green eyes met his and then flicked away, but the electric buzz of that split instant of intimacy jolted him to depths he’d never felt before.
He knew he’d never seen this woman before, and yet he recognized her.
Caro narrowly missed slamming her hip into the table. For the third time.
Look away from the guy, for God’s sake. Get a grip. It’s just a dance.
But her gaze kept getting sucked back to Noah Gallagher, the birthday boy. Ultra-powerful CEO of the oh-so-myserious Angel Enterprises, cutting-edge biotech firm.
The man was gorgeous. Barrel chested. A dense slab of muscle. Short hair showed off the sharp planes and angles of his face, a wide, strong jaw. He wore shaded glasses, but he’d taken them off a few seconds into her dance. It was incredibly hard to stay focused on the music and remember her moves while being examined with such blazing intensity. It wiped her mind blank. Made her lose the thread.
To say nothing of her physical balance.
Holy flipping wow. They said he was turning thirty-two today, but he seemed older, or maybe it was just his expression. Each time she twirled, she snagged a new yummy detail. The shape of his ears. Thick, straight dark brows. Sexy grooves framing a stern but still sensual mouth. Sharp cheekbones. His face was a taut mask of tension, as if he were suppressing strong emotion. But it was his eyes that really got to her.
His scorching laser focus made her temperature rise. She’d always been sensitive to the quality of a person’s energy. Noah Gallagher’s energy dominated the room. He looked like he’d tear you to pieces if you gave him any trouble, despite the elegant suit that sat just right on his huge shoulders. He didn’t laugh or look embarrassed like most men did when surprised by a belly dancer. He just sat there, with the charged stillness of a predator poised to spring. Radiating danger.
Her smile faltered as she shimmied and spun. Suddenly, she was hyper-conscious of the erotic allure of the dance. His silent, very male sexual energy made it feel deadly serious. As if they were alone, and she’d been summoned for a private, uninhibited performance designed to drive him crazy.
Oh my. What a stimulating scenario.
She was actually getting aroused. For the love of God. Rising panic began to shred the sensation. Enough of this ridiculous crap. She had to get out of here, and fast.
Finish the dance. You need the cash. He’s only a hot guy, not a celestial being. You’re freaking yourself out. Chill. Usually she spread the wealth, bestowing flirtatious smiles on everyone. Not tonight. They weren’t feeling it. Young men were usually always enthusiastic, and there were several of them here, but no one made a sound. Tension was thick in the air. No laughter, no snickering, no whistles.
Who cared. Her mind was fully occupied with the task of not gaping at Noah Gallagher’s godlike hotness. Being aware of every inch of skin she displayed to him.
Her gaze bounced across the blond woman who sat next to him. A little younger, but not colleague or an assistant. They sat too close together for that. The woman’s mouth looked tight and miserable. Next to her sat a flushed, heavy older man who stared fixedly at Caro’s beaded bra, nostrils flared.
Rise up, cupcake. Take back the power. This was a tough crowd, maybe, but everything was relative. The people in this room weren’t trying to frame her for murder, kidnap her or kill her. And she certainly had the birthday boy’s full attention.
So she’d play with it. What the fucking hell. That man needed to be humbled. To worship at the feet of her divine awesomeness. She’d dance like she’d never danced before, blow his mind, and melt away, forever nameless. Leaving him to ache and writhe.
That’s right, big boy. Prepare to suffer.
But Noah Gallagher’s fierce, unwavering gaze was having a strange effect on her. Ever since she’d gone into hiding, she’d had a sick, heavy lump in her belly. For months it had been sitting there, like a chunk of dirty ice that would not melt. But when she looked at him, that pinched coldness eased. It turned soft and warm and alive.
It felt amazingly good. Dancing for him, she could actually breathe again.
For as long it lasted.
The dance was ending. Caro sank to her knees, arching back in a pose of abandoned sensual ecstasy as the music reached its climax, luxurious fake hair brushing the ground in her grand finale. Dancing had never made her feel so naked before. She was stretched before him like a sacrificial virgin on an altar.
The pose felt obscene, but only because there were other people in the room. If there hadn’t been, it would have felt right. It would have felt . . . hot.
The sound of one person frantically clapping broke the silence. Hannah Gallagher, the girl who had hired her. Noah Gallagher’s younger sister, from the looks of her. Caro rose slowly to her feet. Noah Gallagher didn’t applaud. He just stared at her, as if he wanted to leap over that table and pin her down.
Tension built like an electrical charge. The othe people in the room looked up, down, anywhere but at her. Caro smiled brightly. Held her head as high as possible.
Not fair, to throw a paid performer into the middle of someone else’s big fat faux pas and make her swim in it. Bastards.
“That was fabulous!” Hannah’s voice was a little too high. “Thanks for a gorgeous dance, Shamira! Happy birthday, Noah! Wasn’t she awesome, everyone?”
Not one yes. There was only dead silence, downcast eyes, awkward looks exchanged all around. And still, Noah Gallagher’s devouring eyes.
So what. She’d stay dignified. While running for her life, fighting the powers of darkness, scrambling for money. Even if it involved putting on a scanty costume and shaking her booty for rude or indifferent strangers.
Or, in this case, one single intense, lustful, smoldering stranger.
She took a slow, deliberate bow, as if she were in front of an adoring crowd. Taking her own sweet time. Rubbing their faces in it.
Take that, you rude shitheads. Like it would kill you to clap.
She didn’t need any validation from these self-important bio-tech-nerd idiots. Just her fee, which she would get whether they liked her performance or not.
Fuck ’em. She had things to do. Important things. After one more hungry peek at the mouthwatering godking. Lord, he was fine.
She flash-memorized him in one breathless instant, whipping her gaze away from his face before eye contact could start the inevitable sexual mind-melt reaction. Then she swept out of the room, chin up, shoulders back. A regal sweep of purple veils.
That was it. She would never see him again. She wasn’t going to feel that hot rush of opening in her chest, ever again.
Suck it up. Ignore the lust buzz. Sport sex is reserved for normal people. Fugitives do without. And don’t whine.
Hannah followed her out of the room, and slammed the door harder than was necessary. “You were gorgeous,” she said fervently. “You’re so talented. I’m so sorry they didn’t clap or anything. I’m going to tell them all off. Noah will kill me, but I’m used to it.”
“I’ll rather not watch that,” Caro said hastily. “I’ll just be on my way.”
“Oh no! Stay just a minute! You have to at least say hi to Noah. No matter what he says to me, he certainly enjoyed your dance. I’m the villain here. You’re just an innocent bystander. Noah’s very fair that way. And I’m sure he’ll want to meet you!”
In your dreams, honey. “Let me, ah, change first,” Caro said, backing away.
“You remember the way to the office? Come back after. I’ll introduce you.”
The door flew open. A man strode out, not the birthday boy. This one was tall, blue eyed and very built, his thick dark blond hair hanging down to his shoulders. His eyes flicked over her with controlled curiosity and then turned back to Hannah.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he asked.
Definitely her cue. Caro took off, hurrying back toward the nondescript office that’d served as a dressing room. She didn’t even want to know what Hannah’s answer might be. Not her family, not her fight.
Once inside the empty office, she could still hear them arguing from behind the door. Other people had gotten into the mix. Voices were being raised. Her heart pounded as she peeled off her costume and packed it up. She pulled on her shapeless street clothing, trying not to overhear. She had her own problems. Big nasty ones. Time to cruise discreetly away and let them get on with theirs.
Makeup pads got most of the paint off. She rolled the expensive dancing wig into its carrying bag, and put on her street wig, a thick brown bob with heavy bangs and wisps curling in around her face to conceal its shape. When she arrived, she hadn’t worn the mouth prosthesis, which puffed out her cheeks and distorted her jawline. She’d figured that the coat and hat were enough weirdness for the client to swallow. But the job was done, and she hoped to God she could slink out unnoticed, so in went the mouth thing. Big tinted glasses finished the look, topped off by her hat with LED lights in the brim, ordered off the Internet to foil facial recognition software her pursuers might use to find her on social media.
Who knew if it really worked. At least the wide brim kept the Seattle drizzle off.
Her hands still shook as she pulled on her oversized black wool coat. The foam lining she’d sewn in bulked up her shoulders and hips. She looked sixty pounds heavier, and slightly humped.
At first, she’d tried changing the way she moved as part of her disguise, but after all the bodywork she’d done in college, she decided that the psychological toll of slumping and shuffling was dangerous to her soul. Inside her frumpy cocoon of foam and wool, she still had her pride and attitude. Hidden, maybe, but structurally intact.
When she exited the office, she looked like a sketch that had been blurred on purpose. Noah Gallagher would stare right through her even if she were inches away.
That thought was so depressing, she could barely stand to think it.
Chin up. She’d had her fun, turning him on. Time for the disappearing act. Eat your heart out, Laser Eyes.
But disappearing didn’t feel powerful to her. It just felt flat. Empty and sad.
The route back to the elevators took her right past the conference room.
Hannah Gallagher and several others were still arguing outside it. If she kept her head down, turned the corner and cut swiftly across the open space, she’d only be in their line of vision for only a few seconds. Then it was a straight shot to the elevator.
One, two . . . go.
When she was squarely in the danger spot, Noah Gallagher came out the door.
That was her undoing. She slowed down. Not consciously, but simply unable to resist the temptation to steal one last look at him before fleeing.
His gaze snapped onto her, like a powerful magnet coupling.
Oh, God. Oh, no. He strode through the center of the group, scattering them, and followed her. Even with her back to him, his eyes burned through her layered, ugly disguise, a focused point of heat against her concealed skin. She stabbed the elevator button. He was twenty yards away. Fifteen, and closing. Picking up speed.
He couldn’t have recognized her. In this dreary get-up, she couldn’t be more different from Shamira the sexy dancing girl. She barely recognized herself dressed like this. The door slid open. She lunged inside. No other riders, thank God.
“Hold the door!” Gallagher called, loping for the elevator.
Asfuckingif. She punched the close button, and the mechanism engaged.
Their eyes locked, as the doors shut in his face.
Her heart was thudding, as if she’d done something wrong and had almost gotten caught. Maybe he was just wondering who the scruffy stranger was. Dressed like that, she stuck out like a sore thumb in the muted corporate elegance of Angel Enterprises.
She hurried through the lavish front lobby. Outside, a cab was letting a passenger out. She bolted for it, waving it down.
Noah Gallagher emerged from the entrance just as her cab pulled away. His eyes locked onto hers again instantly. Even shadowed by the hat, obscured by the dark glasses, through the back window of a cab that was already a half a block away.
He started running after her. Right out onto the street. Eyes still locked. The contact felt like a wire, pulling tighter and tighter. Then the taxi turned a corner and he was lost to sight. It hurt. As if something vital had been snipped with bolt-cutters.
Her fizz of excitement died away. The cold lump of fear was back in place.
She was so sick of feeling this way. She wanted to yell at the driver to circle the block, just on the off chance of catching one last glimpse of Noah Gallagher. To feel something different than that cold, heavy ache in her core. Just for a second or two.
But she could not have this. Not even a stolen taste of it. She could not let lust trash her good judgment. She had to stay murderously sharp. Constantly on the defensive. Without rest.
Sexual frustration wouldn’t kill her.
But there were other things out there that definitely could.
End of Excerpt