The gun blasts jerked Aaro up from behind his human shield. He clambered over the stiff, his heart stuck high in his throat. Eight shots. Nina Christie had to be dead. He’d done it again. Called it wrong, gotten the chick killed by racing in here like a cranked up asshole, freaking the bad guys into a panic. He should have come up with something sneakier, quieter, smarter. Goddamn them all, his so-called friends, for putting him in this position. Like he didn’t have enough to feel like shit about every fucking day of his life.
He slapped the bedroom door open. Window gaping, curtains fluttering. Stench of gunpowder. He lunged for the window, caught a glimpse of a big bald guy, staring up at him, with pale snake eyes. Another man, tall and dark, was clambering over garbage cans.
Aaro squeezed off two shots, then two more at the bald one. Bullets pumped into the garbage bins, whinged off a parked car. The bald guy dove and scrambled for cover. The dark guy jerked, stumbled, and kept on going, ducking out of sight into the alley.
Grazed, maybe. No pursuit possible. He had bigger problems now.
He pulled his head back in, and faced the closet. It gaped open. Clothes were scattered on the floor. The back panel was splintered with bullet holes. Now came the ugly part. His mess, his failure, in his face. He had to call the EMT’s for a woman who was dying because of his poor crisis decision making skills. And explain himself to the cops, too.
And then to Bruno and Lily. Well. Then again. Maybe he could arrange to get himself hit by a bus, and just skip that part.
“Nina?” He was disgusted by the hitch in his voice. “You there?”
No answer. Hadn’t expected one. Not after six bullets.
He put his hand against the holes in the back panel. His legs shook. “Nina? You in there? I’m not one of those guys who attacked you. I’m Aaro, the guy who pissed you off on the phone, remember? Bruno told me you were in trouble. Are you shot?” He clenched his jaw, hating the goddamn silence. Hating it.
“Aaro?” It was just a squeak, barely audible. “You’re Aaro?”
“Nina?” Hope jolted his insides hard, and a hot rush of moisture fogged his eyes, making him blink. “Nina? Are you shot? Are you hurt?”
“I think, ah . . . I think I’m OK.”
He rattled the panel, pounded it. “How do you open this thing?”
“Just a minute,” she faltered. “I have t-t-to undo the latch, and I’m kind of wedged in here, so . . . um . . . hold on while I . . .”
He heard a scratching and shifting inside. Then a rattle, a click.
The panel slid open. Nina Christie was huddled inside, stark naked. Curly dark hair draped over her face and trailed over her shoulders. She blinked, her aqua-green and gold eyes huge and haunted. She had long lashes. The dark waving hair over her face was snarled in them. Her parted lips looked bluish.
“Nina Christie?” he prompted, feeling stupid. Who else could she be? But he could think of nothing to say to the naked chick who had just dodged death. Not like he had a lot of clever conversational gambits floating up to the surface of his mind in the best of circumstances. He just scooped up whatever floated on top of his mind like pond scum, and plop, there it was. No filters. What you see is what you get.
He squatted down so that they would be eye to eye, and peered into the dark recesses of the closet. A couple of big hard-shell suitcases were piled one on top of the other. She’d wedged herself behind them. That was what had saved her life. It was no thanks to him.
Her blinking shook loose the tears that had gathered in her eyes. They flashed down her cheeks, glinting. “A-a-a-aro?”
Uh oh. The way she stared up at him gave him a twinge of dread. All big-eyed and misty, as if he were God, her saviour, her hero. She was in for a rude shock when the truth became clear. Wouldn’t take long for that to happen. It never did.
“Yeah, that’s me.” Discomfort roughened his voice. He tried to look unthreatening, a talent at which he did not excel. “Bruno sent me.”
“B-b-bruno?” The girl was scared stupid.
He fought for patience. “Bruno. Your best friend’s future husband? The father of her unborn child?” He fought down his natural urge to be a sarcastic asshole, but she didn’t react. She just crouched there, staring up at him, with those huge, shocked eyes. Her purplish lips shook. He had to get her dressed, take her someplace safe. What would he do if she collapsed? Urgent Care? That would involve filling out papers, explanations, accountability. Cops. Bad scene. Damn.
He made his voice gentle, with some effort. “Come out of the closet, Nina. We have to get out of here. We don’t know when they’ll be back, how many there are, or anything else. So move.”
No reaction. More quivering lips. More blinking. Shit. He was going to have to drag her out. He steeled himself for a screaming, scratching hysterical freak-out. She was entitled, after that.
He reached in, took her hands. They were icy. He chafed them between his own, and tugged. She came out, offering no resistance.
In fact, she practically flew out, and came to rest right in his arms. There was a weird inevitability to it. A key to a lock. Like they were magentized. Snick, and they were fused, and he was hugging the naked girl, and feeling strange about it. His arms shook, his guts vibrated, his heart tripped over itself. He was squeezing her too hard. Had to loosen his grip. He’d scare her worse than she was already.
He couldn’t. His eyes watered, and what the fuck was that about? He hid his face against her hair, used it to blot the tears away.
This was stupid. They had no time to indulge in masturbatory hugging bullshit, with bullet holes smoking and cops on their way. But what was he supposed to do, fling her off? Her face pressed against his shirt. Her eyelash flutters tickled his collarbone. Her breath bloomed, humid against his chest. The sensation rocketed through his nerves.
Whoa. Back off. Don’t start with that crazy shit. Don’t even start.
Then he caught her scent. And oh. God.
He lived in a forest. Outside his house, the spruce, cedars, firs and pines towered hundreds of feet over his head, a vaulted expanse of flickering green. When it rained, which was often, the earthy sweetness of pine needles, tree bark, loam and moss, rose to meet the falling rain. The meeting point of earth and water. Perfect balance. The intersection of opposites. It was the exact scent of Nina Christie’s hair.
He’d bought that property for the smell alone. It had been raining when the agent showed him the place, and he just couldn’t resist it.
So her shampoo has a nice perfume. Get the fuck over it. He knew how to dismantle a foolish notion with a few hard, well-placed blows.
But the damage was done. Now he was hyper-aware of her. His body felt like one big eye that could not close. He caught sight of the mirror on her closet door. There he was, clutching the gorgeous naked chick, like he was about to push her down onto the floor and fuck her.
Wow. So pale. Curvy. Her dark hair draped in swags over his wrist. His fingers looked very brown against the pale, smooth skin.
His fingers tightened. She was soft, silky. Chubbier than the girls he usually ogled, but maybe he’d been missing something, favoring the taut, lean ones. Her breasts pressed against his chest, springy and soft. Her bare, tight nipples brushed his chest. Her locks of dark hair tapered off so that the tips barely tickled the swell of her ass. He wanted to touch the rosy blush. To pet that peachy, shadowy cleft.
His body, jangling with adrenaline, did its fucking stupid animal thing, and sprang to attention. His hands had taken off without permission on an exploratory mission, fingers splaying greedily to feel the dip of her waist, to grip the curve of her hip.
For God’s sake, get a grip, you oversexed bonehead. This woman was all fucked up. She wasn’t coming on. She didn’t need attention from the beast lunging on its chain. Back down, already. Now.
He clenched his jaw hard enough to cause nerve damage, and dragged his mind away from the hot throb in his crotch. Good timing, decency, self control, gallantry; none of these items had ever been on his resume. He’d just pretend this was normal. Gunfights, pulling zaftig naked girls with bouncing tits out of closets. No biggie. All in a day’s work. Nina Christie did not need his engorged prick bobbing hopefully in her direction. She needed a hot cup of tea, a shot of Demerol, a trauma therapist. A police escort.
Bummer for her. All she had was him.
“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