Jeremy Sunn stood next to the gazebo in the middle of the park and glanced around the festival to be sure no one saw him where he normally wouldn’t be. Not on a Sunday off. Working undercover required patience, persistence, and… popcorn. He tossed a fluffy kernel into the air and caught the buttery delight in his mouth then eyed the Greek water-maiden statue.
The one he’d been lusting over for the past hour.
More like three weeks.
He’d staked out a lot of things in his undercover career with the BAD—Bureau of American Defense—agency, but never a woman for purely personal interest.
No one at the Festival of Emperors paid attention to him, probably because he’d dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt instead of period clothing. Roman soldiers and women in togas hustled around trying to buy up the last deals of the day. The mid-July event drew traffic from across metro Atlanta to the historic square in Marietta.
And no one strolling past the water maiden in the last hour had noticed why that one statue was different from the other three, besides being the only female sculpture.
But he did.
Beneath all that caked-on makeup beat the live heart of a flesh-and-blood woman. One he had to get an answer from before heading back to work on Tuesday.
Hell of a way to squander his last day off for a while and ancient history wasn’t his forte, but he lived only a mile away and she was worth standing here waiting for the festival to end. He hoped.
A simple yes or no.
One answer had the power to… eat a hole in his gut.
Sweat trickled down his neck but he couldn’t be as hot as that water maiden posed silently amid three massive concrete sculptures of Greek gods.
CeCe Caprice just pretended to be a statue. She could go for hours without moving a muscle when she performed.
He could attest to how hard she trained daily at his gym in Marietta. Yep, every inch of that shapely body wrapped in a toga and posed with a baby doll also coated in white plaster was very much a living, breathing human… and one hot female.
That he couldn’t touch, damn it.
Correction. Wouldn’t touch. Not if he found out she really had meant to give him a “back off” signal yesterday after spending the afternoon planting some damn flowers in her yard.
At least, that’s how he’d read her odd reaction when he asked her out to dinner. Now he was starting to wonder if he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion when she hadn’t actually said the word “no.”
He’d never pressed a woman for anything so he’d backed off. Quick. Then regretted it when he missed her for the past twenty-four hours. He’d gotten used to sharing iced tea on her patio for the best part of three weeks, had never spent that much time just talking to a woman. The females he met were only interested in what he intended to do to their naked bodies.
But CeCe had hung on his words. And laughed at his jokes.
He hadn’t even kissed her or had dinner with her.
Twenty-four hours of no iced tea, no talking, and no smiles. He missed her. Couldn’t get her out of his mind for one day.
A woman had never spun him inside out like this.
Lust used to be fun, and short-lived. Not obsessive.
Three weeks at home recuperating from a leg wound—a souvenir of his last mission—hadn’t turned out anything like he’d expected. Limping to his mailbox the first day at home he’d expected nothing more exciting than his standard fan mail from bill collectors.
When the screen door on the rental house next to his burst open and CeCe strolled down her driveway, the first thing he’d noticed was the sweet belly button winking at him between a red half shirt and white shorts.
He’d thought one of his teammates from BAD had sent him a get-well-soon girl. No way could that little bombshell be his honest to God next-door neighbor.
His luck had never run that hot.
But she was indeed a new addition to the neighborhood. For the first time since moving there he regretted having to leave as soon as he healed.
CeCe had destroyed any operating brain cells he’d possessed the minute she smiled at him. Blue eyes had sparkled bright as sapphires tossed up in blazing sunshine. Every time she turned her head, he fought the urge to touch the wavy auburn hair that brushed her shoulders.
He woke up at night thinking about that thick mass spread across a pillow. His pillow. His bed.
But CeCe wasn’t the kind of woman you spent a couple of steamy nights with then walked away. He’d be the first to admit he came by women easily only because the women he met saw him as nothing more than a short-term sexual buzz. Something to hold them over until the real thing came along. He’d accepted that for years as a trade-off for not having to spend his life entirely alone.
Hell, he wasn’t long-term material. Not with his criminal history or his current occupation that required going back to prison on a regular basis.
And it wasn’t like he could tell a woman he got arrested and thrown in the joint as part of his job description for BAD.
Which was why he should be looking for fast, fun, and forgettable instead of waiting to talk to CeCe here, the one place she couldn’t disappear in her house and ignore him. He’d tried to do the same, to forget CeCe, but he’d spent three amazing weeks pretending he had a normal life because a sweet young woman shared iced tea and talked to him. She made him want a normal life. He just didn’t know how to go about making it happen. Of all the women who had climbed in his bed, he’d never desired one like he wanted CeCe, and he hadn’t even held her in his arms. Spending time with her felt too damned good not to try again to ask her out. To try to keep her.
No mission had turned his gut inside out like this.
He officially went back to work undercover in two days. Before that happened he would know where he stood with her. Had she turned down the date because she’d really had plans with her brother or because she wouldn’t date a neighbor?
He only wanted a date. A dinner, movie… hell, he didn’t know. Anything. Something.
But if CeCe told him no today he’d respect her decision and walk away… then ask BAD to relocate his residence while he was gone on the next mission so he wouldn’t have to face coming home to find another man on her patio.
Popcorn crackled inside the bag he crushed in his fist.
Damn it, he’d never been in knots over a woman before.
“Hey, J!” a familiar male voice yelled.
Jeremy groaned. What the hell was Blade doing here? He stepped away from the side of the gazebo he’d been leaning against and turned to find Blade covering the fifty feet between them with long strides. Most people thought the skinny six-foot, four-inch guy got his name from having a body that moved through crowds like a black knife slicing water, not because he’d carried a switchblade since grade school.
After being busted in a chop shop raid and doing a stint in prison, Blade returned home to start a legitimate body shop business. Rehabilitating a cat not to hunt mice would be more realistic, but he’d been straight for a year and swore he was going to stay on this side of the law. His Denzel Washington smile, charismatic tongue, and ever present sense of humor drew women faster than bees to a hive.
Jeremy met him when they landed in the same cellblock in a Florida correctional institute after Jeremy got picked up for possession of stolen goods. BAD planted the merchandise and dropped the dime on him via a snitch so Jeremy could expose the identity of a nasty guy who had tortured and murdered three teens who refused to steal for him.
A dirty, but rewarding, job most days.
“Whatcha doing here?” Blade glided up in blue jeans and a red T-shirt sporting a motorcycle design. “This ain’t your playground, dog.”
“Boning up on ancient history.” Jeremy peeked at his water maiden to make sure CeCe hadn’t come out of her comatose state yet, but she hadn’t so much as blinked.
“Speaking of boners, I got something right up your alley.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“But it’s what you’re thinkin’ about.”
“How do you figure that?” Jeremy crossed his arms.
“Your eyes are open.” Blade broke out a grin that destroyed any chance of staying pissed off at him.
Labeling Blade a “close friend” stretched the definition only because a true friend gave unconditional trust. Jeremy had learned at birth that anyone, even family, would eventually turn their back on you.
However, when it came to extending trust to someone other than Jeremy’s teammates in BAD, Blade was that rare exception.
“Now that we’ve determined your state of mind,” Blade continued with his line of trash talk. “Glad I spotted you. I got a sizzlin’-hot babe you don’t wanna miss, right over there.”
Jeremy looked in the direction Blade hooked his thumb over his shoulder. Two voluptuous smiling beauties dressed in costume were walking toward them through the middle of the park.
“Who’re they?” Jeremy hoped his unchecked irritation hadn’t come through, but introducing him to any woman right now was really bad timing. The last thing he needed was for CeCe to come out of her trance and see him flirting with another female.
But Blade noticed the smallest things sometimes and Jeremy wasn’t ready to let him know about his infatuation with CeCe.
“That black diamond in the Cleopatra outfit is Cleo. She’s mine.” Blade waggled his eyebrows. “That redheaded seductress is Shelilah.” He drew out the name Shuh-liii-luh in adoration.
“Shelilah? Is that even a real name? Did they have Shelilahs in Roman time?” Weren’t all these statues of emperors from Rome?
“Details, details. Her name’s probably Sheila.” Blade beamed one of his on-the-move smiles at the women and lifted a finger for them to wait a minute then turned to Jeremy. “Come on, man. You’re my lucky charm. These two are perfect. Right up your alley—hot women looking for some quick action then leaving tomorrow for Florida. All they want are a couple man toys for a night.”
A disposable date.
Jeremy had been disposable from the first hours of his life when his mother tossed him into the closest Dumpster. He hadn’t fared much better in all the foster homes after that. The only place that ever wanted to keep him had been juvie. He’d learned skills in there that put him on a path to fast money and hard time.
But all that stopped with BAD, or at least changed, since he now committed crimes only when ordered to for a mission.
Jeremy shrugged. “I’ll pass, but thanks anyhow.” He had only forty-eight hours left and intended to spend as much time as he could with CeCe if she gave him the green light.
This was his only chance. He could be gone for a week or a month.
By then, CeCe could be in someone else’s arms.
“Are you crazy? What’s wrong with you?” Blade growled and hooked his thumbs in the corners of his jean pockets. “I ain’t seen you with a skirt in two weeks. Thought you were healed.”
Three weeks, actually, to be exact. But who’s counting?
“I’m healed.” The wound in his thigh was sore but he could function. “Like you said, none that you’ve seen me with.” Jeremy glanced over at the CeCe statue, no idea what possessed him to want a woman who said she’d just moved away from home for the first time. She had a quick wit and wasn’t the least bit meek. Too sweet to be worldly or a quick fling…
“Come on, J. Get out of that damn funk you’ve been in. You don’t come charm these women I’m gonna revoke your badass license.” Blade grinned, which meant his devious mind was up to no good. “In fact, I’ll tell everyone in the hood you done turned pansy-assed on us and can’t get it up around a knockout woman no more.”
“You bite, you know that? Let’s go.” Jeremy resigned himself to making small talk until he could find a way to get out of Blade’s deal without insulting Shelilah and before CeCe left the festival, or saw him first.
Then what? Stroll back over to the statues when she came out of her trance and pretend he happened to be at the festival and, oh, what a surprise to run into each other?
SAM THE MAN clawed his way over a chain-link fence, dropped, and hit the ground running. Georgia humidity soaked his black open-collar shirt, his new one, damn it. He gasped for air, dodging between older clapboard houses just off the square in Marietta.
Quick glance back. They weren’t close. Keep moving.
The neighborhood canine chorus grew with every yard he disturbed. Sam toed a foothold on a rear gate of one yard and plunged into an unfenced one, finally.
A rottweiler lunged, teeth bared, but the six feet of sturdy chain attached to one honkin’-big doghouse held while Sam sprinted past.
He burst from the narrow alley between well-tended aging homes and slowed to a quick walk. Cars were tucked bumper to bumper along both sides of the quiet side street. Shouts and barking from behind meant his tail was gaining on him. Time to make some serious mileage. He broke from the manicured yards thick with landscape and raced down the sidewalk. Clutching the photo card he had to deliver, he cursed the friend he’d trusted.
The friend who’d set him up.
But since no one could be completely trusted, Sam had taken the precaution of a backup plan. Never knew when a deal would suck toilet water.
Starface’s two armed thugs hard on his ass pretty much flushed his day down the sewer.
Trusting the feds to come through in time had been a gamble to begin with, but maybe he should have set up the meet spot in advance. Now he was looking at bad odds, because the feds probably couldn’t get to him in time. He’d sent a text message on the run for them to meet him in Marietta Square. The crowds milling around some damn festival there today would cover him long enough for the feds to snatch him out of sight.
But when Sam reached the square in sixty seconds he doubted even Superman could make it here in time.
He sliced across Church Street to where the crazy-looking event was winding down, the crowd thinning. He slowed to a fast walk as he entered the historic square, searching for a spot to hide his prize. All the tents would be picked up tonight.
Damn, no help there.
The smell of fresh popcorn fattened the air. He had to be careful not to draw the attention of off-duty cops working the event. They’d get him killed and probably a few of them, too. Sam zigzagged against a sea of teens bundled in groups and couples strolling, oblivious of any danger. Some of the patrons wore shorts but others were in togas. Huh?
A dumpy Caesar wannabe glared when Sam bumped the short bastard’s bone-thin Cleopatra.
Sam clutched the tiny photo card, thinking. The feds would stick out like the Blues Brothers in this crowd if they were here, which they weren’t. He needed a plan C at this point and slowed, searching for a safe spot to hide the memory card that was no bigger than a quarter. He passed an eight-foot-tall train engine replica packed with kids using it like a jungle gym.
Couldn’t hide the card there. Rushing ahead between tents protecting displays of pottery and paintings, he passed vendors packing their wares.
Nowhere showed promise. Damn it all to hell.
He had to dump this card fast.
At the far end of the park he burst into an opening, almost taking a header into one of four life-size sculptures. The area had been arranged as a garden with white concrete-looking statues of Roman-like figures.
This statue garden offered him a slim salvation. For now.
Sam quickly sized up each sculpture. Which one was the best hiding place? He shoved his shoulder against the closest concrete emperor. That heavy sucker didn’t budge, which meant whoever owned these would probably send a crew out tomorrow to pick up the statues with a crane when the crowd wouldn’t be a problem. But this emperor didn’t have a cut deep enough in the folds of his robe or in the rocky-looking base for Sam to drop the small digital photo card into.
Get caught with the goods and he’d die for sure.
Best plan he had was to dump the package then come back later to retrieve his property. Or hope the feds miraculously showed up to save him if he got nailed by Starface’s men.
Worst case, Sam would buy some time if Starface did catch him—a real possibility. He’d only give up the card if all other options disappeared. Letting the photos and video stored on this memory device fall into the wrong hands would unleash a mob war like none before.
He’d be the first casualty.
Sam eased over to a statue of a woman with a baby and long tulip leaves sculpted around the base. Deep crevices in the leaves would hide the small plastic case. Perfect.
“The park will close in ten minutes,” screeched from a speaker on top of a pole.
“Take care of my booty,” he whispered and made a bare flick of his fingers to toss the card into a deep fissure between a leaf and a stem.
He breathed a heavy sigh of relief for five yards and scooted between two large panel trucks. A quick glance past the other side and he started to move.
Strong fingers bit into his shoulder.
Sam froze, then turned to face the ugly mug of Dorvan, who appeared to be in the running for “Bone Breaker of the Year.” Dorvan’s shorter sidekick kept his back to the two of them, obviously watching the area so no one overheard them.
“Where’s the memory card?” Dorvan asked casually.
“I didn’t get it. Things fell apart at the meet.” Sam licked his dry lips, wishing he could cause a disturbance, but he didn’t trust the police not to shoot him in an altercation.
“Starface won’t be happy.”
“Swear I don’t have the card.” Sam figured the feds would be all over this place in another five minutes. “Tell you what. Give me a day and I’ll come up with it.”
A click sounded. Dorvan jabbed a knife tip into Sam’s neck. Sam hissed at the sharp pain. His day was definitely going to shit.
“Let’s go somewhere you can show me you don’t have it.” Dorvan jerked Sam along by his collar.
Not the response Sam had been banking on. A throbbing pulse hammered his skull. He would be searched, right down to body cavities.
“THE FESTIVAL OFEmperors has now ended and the park is closing.”
CeCe heard sounds as if they echoed through a long tunnel. A male voice talking a minute ago about… what? Now, a bullhorn-type announcement. Her thoughts bounced around until she realized she’d reached the end of her physical limit for standing still but her concentration wouldn’t be broken. Discipline came from hours of practice… and growing up in a cautious environment. She never dreamed she’d get so good at this when she took up yoga two years ago to use as a mental lifeline.
Or that her new skills would offer her a way to support herself and a chance at a new life in a new location.
Drawing the first deep breath in almost two hours, she flexed her fingers from their stiff position. Sharp needles of pain shot through her numb limbs with each move.
Click. Whirr. Click. Whirr. Click. Whirr.
What was that? She rolled her head to one side, paused, then to the other side and wiggled her toes. Her skin screamed for moisture, a shower to wash away the white powder coating. Step by step, she eased her body out of the deep Zen state she’d entered to perform her routine.
“I’m from the newspaper. You can talk now can’t you?” a male voice said.
Oh, if he was a reporter the sound must have been a camera.
CeCe stretched her stiff face and cracked open her eyelids. She closed them again then forced the heavy lids to lift, squinting until her pupils adjusted to the fading afternoon light. The matte finish makeup made blinking a chore.
“Of course.” She smiled. Her voice always sounded rough after a long state of calm, but she loved this job.
And loved finally being on her own at twenty-six with a chance at a normal life.
“I’m with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.” A fortyish man in dark slacks, white collared shirt, and an Atlanta Braves ballcap over short hair stuffed his camera into a green bag on the ground then pulled out a pad and pen. He had kind eyes that matched the photo on the media ID swinging from the lanyard around his neck. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“Not if you don’t mind me moving around while I answer.” She shifted her weight, loosening up her leg muscles, and felt the crack in the top of her base give so she spread her feet on each side of the center to keep from damaging the area further. She had to find someone who could repair fiberglass this week.
CeCe tossed the baby doll statue to the ground so she could keep flexing her hands.
A woman walking by stopped short, stared in surprise at the doll, then at CeCe, then seemed to figure it all out before she shook her head and continued on.
Normal reaction when a person saw a statue move.
“No problem. You do whatever you need to do.” The middle-aged photographer had a notebook out, pen ready in his stubby fingers. “I took a shot before you woke up. Is that what you do? Sleep?”
“It’s more of a deep meditative state I learned in yoga.” Hours and hours and hours of yoga that offered therapeutic escape and a way to survive. CeCe stretched one leg muscle, then the other.
“Have you done this a long time and do you work for a company?”
“No. I’ve been doing this for about a month. I contract from a company called Double Take. They’re in Atlanta. Will this be in the paper for sure?”
“Yep. Be in tomorrow’s. I’m going to take a couple more shots of you while you stretch.”
“Sure.” CeCe smiled inside, thrilled to show the owner of the company she was an asset. She’d get a copy of tomorrow’s paper for the owner of Double Take. In this troubled economy, the newspaper article would be free promotion. Maybe get a couple copies she could send to her family in Canada. All at once her enthusiasm bottomed out. Her family hated any contact with the media and had always warned her about staying out of the public eye, but she was now officially a nobody and living an anonymous existence in a new country. She just had to be careful with her answers.
No one here would recognize her since she’d been hidden away most of her life and the only way anyone would know of her family was if they were in law enforcement or were a criminal.
She avoided both.
The reporter lowered the camera to hang from a strap around his neck. “What’s your name and where do you live?”
“Cecelia… Caprice.” When would that name come easily to her so she didn’t hesitate each time to make sure she said her full name correctly? She’d better get used to it. Besides, Caprice was her true last name, the one she’d had at birth.
“I live in Marietta,” she answered. Along with some sixty thousand residents, so no significant details shared there. In spite of her new freedom, she’d been raised in a cautious environment and taught to divulge only specific information when asked a question.
“Has yoga been a hobby of yours for a long time?” he asked over his shoulder then clicked his pen several times, muttering something before he squatted down to dig through his bag. “Hang on a minute.”
A hobby? Hell, no, yoga had never been something as simple as a hobby. She’d first started ten years ago, as a way to survive her mother’s death and deal with the dangers associated with her family. The discipline had kept her sane in a world where her every move was orchestrated and every word had to be thought out and edited before speaking. Impulsive had never been part of her vocabulary, which hadn’t been easy as hormones had taken over her body.
She wanted impulsive, damn it.
CeCe kept stretching and squelched a frown at the word “hobby,” which reminded her of Jeremy Sunn, her sexy neighbor. He’d hobbled over to where she’d been washing her dual-cab pickup truck and hosing off her statue base the day after they met at the mailbox and asked if she statue-modeled for a hobby.
What was it with men?
Just because she didn’t sweat and grunt at her job didn’t mean she wasn’t working. Did Jeremy think owning a gym was a real job? An image of that ripped body sweating and grunting as he lifted weights in the gym sent a bead of perspiration trickling down between her makeup-caked breasts.
CeCe mentally whitewashed that picture before her camo makeup turned molten and puddled at her feet. She’d never seen him during the first two weeks she’d lived in the neighborhood, then he showed up one day, limping. He’d been hurt on the job but never explained how and she hadn’t pressed him. Guys do stupid things when they get in a gym around other men. Jeremy might be embarrassed to explain how he got injured.
She’d decided to join his gym to do her daily yoga routines, but to be honest she suffered another hour of workout to see Jeremy a few extra hours a day.
For someone who had been a major flirt during that first meeting at the mailboxes, Jeremy was all business at his gym, polite to women and sharing a quick joke with guys. At first, she’d been grateful over the remote decorum he maintained there since she had to keep her distance from any man in public. But her gratitude slowly turned an evil green color when she noticed the other women ogling him and overheard their seductive comments about his beautiful body.
Yoga did little to smother her irritation.
CeCe had never enjoyed the freedom to flirt with a guy. Not if she wanted to see him a second time, which was why she made the most of her exclusive time with Jeremy when they were both home by asking him to help her around the yard and making him iced tea.
Anytime she was sure her brother wasn’t expected to visit.
Her little adventure had been going great until she’d almost accepted a date with Jeremy after he’d spent yesterday afternoon planting pansies in her yard.
A breath before she’d screwed up and said yes, she’d heard a big sedan engine rumbling nearby that could have been her brother. In a moment of panic over her sibling catching her alone with a man, she’d rebuffed Jeremy with the excuse she had plans with her brother. Then her brother hadn’t shown up after all. Talk about feeling like an idiot.
Jeremy had politely backed away.
But those vivid green eyes of his had dulled with the rejection. She hadn’t seen him in a full day—a lifetime without his smile and rich voice.
She should have used her I’m-looking-for-a-husband spiel the first time they met, which usually obliterated any male interest for good and spared a man having to face her brothers.
The men in her family loved her but were so overprotective she was sure they’d forced one guy they hadn’t approved of years ago to disappear. Yoga had become her life to combat loneliness, her only defense against curling into a ball of despair over feeling trapped. She doubted Jeremy would pass her family’s test of “acceptable” men for her to date. They wanted her to find someone who was no threat, someone who would accept whatever she told him about her past and never dig beneath the surface to discover the truth behind the DeMitri family in Canada.
The minute any of them met Jeremy in person they’d know he wasn’t a man to be easily fooled or controlled. They’d never find Jeremy selling furniture or running a grocery store. He ran his life and world by his own rules, a prime alpha male—not dating material as far as her brothers were concerned
She envied the hell out of him.
She’d have to bide her time another couple of weeks until Vinny—one of her three older and dangerous stepbrothers—left. He would, once she convinced him she was safe living on her own. When he went back to his wife and kids in Washington, D.C., she could finally accept a date without worry of interference. Until then, no dating and she couldn’t let Jeremy know how much she wanted to be with him or what she’d really like to do with that buff body after hours in his gym, late at night with her favorite chocolate-amaretto sauce…
“Ma’am, did you hear me?”
“Huh?” CeCe blinked and stared, embarrassed. She’d forgotten the reporter.
“Sorry about that. I had a call from my wife.”
She hadn’t heard any phone ring.
He lifted his pad to write. “My last question was if you started yoga as a hobby.”
“No, I committed myself to mastering yoga from the first time I tried it. Yoga requires dedication and discipline to reach a point of immersion so that you can stand without moving a muscle for hours.” CeCe lifted one foot then the other, testing her muscle response before she risked stepping off the two-foot-tall base.
“I watched you earlier today and couldn’t catch you moving at all. What’s the longest you’ve been that still?”
“Two hours and fifteen minutes.” She judged the distance to the ground where she wanted to land then moved her foot to take the step.
The base creaked. The crack shifted her balance. She lost her concentration for a second and wobbled but had almost recovered when a male hand appeared in her line of vision.
The hand had long male fingers and was attached to Jeremy.
What was he doing here?
What if her brother saw him this close to her?
CeCe was so busy looking for Vinny she lost her balance, flailing her arms.
“Careful.” Jeremy caught her at the waist as she toppled forward. “I’ve got you.”
That deep voice rumbled across her psyche with such assurance she fought off a sigh. Strong hands did have her.
She should have been relieved at his assistance, but her pulse ramped into high gear at being so close to Jeremy. Touched by him. Lean muscle filled out his six-foot-two body nicely.
Better than nicely.
She missed his warm scent she’d breathe in whenever he worked shoulder to shoulder with her in the yard. Smelling him this close was so much better. The women in the gym saw only a tall, blond male with sparkling green eyes. She saw the edge beneath his casual facade, the keen look in his gaze and the unyielding planes in his face.
This was a man with hidden layers and secrets.
Jeremy turned as he lowered her, handling her weight with an ease that confirmed he got plenty of return from his investment in a gym. She’d inherited her mother’s five-foot-seven height, but not her mother’s determination to keep her weight down.
Life was too short to pass up banana splits.
But she worried about his leg injury even though she’d noticed him adding a series of workouts on the leg exercise equipment this past week.
She stared up into a face that was a study in tanned skin over sharp angles. He’d been gifted with handsome lips that CeCe had felt only in her dreams. Heat swirled in those lightning green eyes, holding her prisoner.
Her lungs refused to expand.
Jeremy’s fingers moved up an inch, touching her abdomen, and lit a slow-burning fuse for fireworks waiting to go off in her lower half. If he could do that just by holding her at the waist, she could only imagine what he’d feel like skin to skin.
What he could do with that sexy mouth.
When her feet touched earth again, she was close enough to get a whiff of his aftershave. He smelled masculine, virile… potent, something that could be called All Night Fantasy.
A wicked blend a man wore to lure a woman to a dark place.
She had a very dark bedroom and a few slippery fantasies to match.
“You okay?” Jeremy asked softly, then grinned.
What she wouldn’t give for just one night with that grin.
When she didn’t answer, his smile softened into concern. “Did you get too warm up there? Your makeup is smudging.”
Too warm? More like she might combust if she didn’t get away from him.
The reporter’s face popped into view over Jeremy’s shoulder, reminding her she had an audience.
Not to mention Vinny might show up.
“What are you doing here?” CeCe jumped out of Jeremy’s grasp, flinching over the pained look that chased across his face for an instant. He’d never ask her out again if she acted like a witch. “I mean, uh, I’m surprised to see you.”
“I was in the area.” Jeremy shrugged, but his eyes narrowed as though he was cautious, and who wouldn’t be after the way she’d just acted?
Damn it, why couldn’t life be simple? Her reaction wasn’t her fault. Just a safety precaution to protect him if anyone was watching. She didn’t want Jeremy to just disappear one day.
CeCe held up a finger for him to give her a minute, then turned to the reporter. “Do you have any more questions?”
“Can you hear anything while you’re in this deep state?”
A flicker of some man’s voice crossed her mind. What in the world had he said? Take care of my booty.
She pondered for a moment before answering. “Yes, bits and pieces. I probably hear more than I realize, but the words may not register until later. Anything else?”
“No.” He handed her a business card. “This will be in tomorrow morning’s paper.”
“Thanks.” When the reporter left she turned back to Jeremy. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound unappreciative, but I’m slow to come out of that state so I may be weird the first few minutes.” She couldn’t get involved with him—yet—but she didn’t want to run him off either. Yeah, she realized that might sound contradictory, but she really liked Jeremy. Enough that she didn’t want Vinny and her brothers to hurt him.
Which meant no dating right now. Surely Jeremy would give her another chance in a few weeks.
She flicked quick glances around them, watching for any sign of an aggressive Italian male built for championship wrestling heading their way. Jeremy was just as beefed up as Vinny, but she doubted he could take on all three brothers, which was exactly what would happen if Vinny, the attorney in the family, sent out a call to arms.
“That’s okay.” Jeremy’s face eased back into happy as if he accepted her ridiculous excuse for acting like a Chihuahua on acid. “I’ll have to get tomorrow’s paper.”
Idiot that she was around him, she just smiled, happy to see him. He had a rugged outdoorsy look, like a buff surfer with that white-blond hair falling to his collar. But she’d grown up around a pack of alpha males and knew when she entered the heat zone of one.
When Jeremy wasn’t joking around, he had a powerful aura about him that warned others not to step into his arena unless they were up to the task. Some women might miss what hid behind the charming window dressing.
The wind stirred his hair in a loose and free way that made her wonder how he’d look in the morning after a night of hot sex.
With a body like that she’d bet on an endless night.
“You’ll be famous,” he added.
Reminding her about the photo brought her back from mental wandering. “I don’t think so. How famous can someone made up to look like a statue be?”
“I’d know it was you even under all that makeup.”
A tingle of regret over the picture and article inched up her spine. She didn’t want fame and her family might not be happy that she’d talked to a reporter. Stop obsessing and don’t overreact. Besides, it would probably just be a dinky article buried under weekend events. Her identity had been hidden under layers of caked-on makeup. And layers of Vinny’s expert paperwork.
CeCe picked up the baby doll. When she turned back to her fiberglass base, Jeremy was studying it.
“You’ve got a crack in this thing,” he muttered.
“Someone backed into my stand at my last event.”
He lifted the sculpted base, not seeming to mind the white powder he’d gotten on his hands from her body makeup. “Where’s your truck?”
“I have a hand cart to move that with,” she protested, then took in his arched eyebrow and unrelenting expression to mean he only wanted directions to her truck. She finally pointed. “Over there near the theater. Last spot before the railroad tracks.”
This was the first time he’d spoken to her since she’d given him a lame brush-off for his dinner invitation. The look of disappointment in his face had eaten a hole in her stomach.
Was a normal life too much to ask for?
One not built around lies.
CeCe walked companionably beside Jeremy, sneaking peeks at his confident stride and casual manner.
He almost seemed… shy? No way. Just laid back today.
Why couldn’t she have a man like him in her life?
Because her family wouldn’t accept a clean-cut upstanding citizen like Jeremy and she wouldn’t accept a man they approved of, so she couldn’t win either way.
Didn’t mean she had to live like a monk, did it?
Jeremy placed her fiberglass base in the truck bed then dusted the powder from his hands. When he turned to her this time his smile made her swallow hard.
She craved this man.
A long horn blast from the railroad tracks entering Marietta warned everyone a freight train was approaching and would pass through downtown not fifty feet behind them.
“Look, CeCe, maybe we could…” Jeremy hesitated as if the words in his head were waiting for a sign of encouragement.
Long white guardrails lowered into place with warning bells clanging at a deafening level. Automobiles stopped on each side of the crossing. The ground vibrated as the lead engine raced by dragging a string of loaded railcars. Loud rumbling prevented any conversation for a few minutes.
Her heart jumped at the desire pulsing through Jeremy’s eyes, the male interest he didn’t try to hide. But if she let him finish that sentence they’d both be disappointed with her answer.
After a minute of metal-on-metal pounding the caboose blew past, sucking the noise down the tracks with it.
Jeremy opened his mouth to finish his sentence.
“Ah, gee!” CeCe snapped her fingers.
“What?” Jeremy looked as alarmed as she sounded.
“I just realized I’m going to be late.”
Answering that question was going to give her nightmares, but she had no choice. “Drinks at a friend’s house. She wants me to meet—” Just say it! Use the one line that would put Jeremy off for a couple weeks, because she couldn’t keep doing this over and over. Say I have a girlfriend who wants me to meet a guy she thinks would be a good match for me. CeCe had been raised around lies. Why were these so difficult to tell?
Jeremy waited, expectantly. “She wants you to meet… who?”
CeCe opened her mouth to give the right answer, but instead said, “Her friends… she, uh, wants me to meet her girlfriends.”
His face relaxed.
She accepted the stab of guilt that cut her in half over leading him on but couldn’t bring herself to completely destroy the light of interest in his gaze. Not after three weeks of getting to know Jeremy. Three weeks of heaven.
She’d never laughed so much. Once she got him to open up, he’d shared stories of setting up the gym and the people who worked for him. It was as if he’d never shared those stories with anyone else. She’d never spent so much time alone with a man who wasn’t family and realized she felt safe with Jeremy.
If not for her overzealous stepfamily of men who had sworn to her dying mother they’d protect CeCe, she’d enjoy getting to know Jeremy much better.
Jeremy opened the driver’s door on her dual-cab truck where the interior was covered in plastic. When she gained her place behind the wheel amid much crackling noise, he leaned in the opening and said, “See you… tonight.”
As if he meant to do exactly that.
Be still my heart.
Hormones were going to get her in big trouble if she stayed in that rental house so close to him. Vinny would never have approved the lease if he’d realized just what kind of man lived next door to her. The little old lady who owned both houses had assured Vinny her other renter—Jeremy—was a quiet man who traveled often and kept to himself.
A sweet guy who never brought women to his house.
God forgive her, CeCe had jumped on the speculative look in Vinny’s face the first time he glanced over at Jeremy limping around his yard. She realized Vinny had made the mental leap that Jeremy was gay. CeCe did everything she could to keep her brother convinced her neighbor was no threat to her.
Vinny might not be so at ease if he ever met Jeremy in person. He’d recognize another alpha and figure out quickly that her attractive next-door neighbor was not gay.
Not by a long shot.
Oh boy, had she screwed up or what?
If her defenses didn’t hold up Jeremy would be in trouble. Her brothers took overprotective to a whole new level and enforced a no-engagement rule with a .357 Magnum.
But she hadn’t moved here to live in hiding the way she had at home. The minute she convinced Vinny to return home to D.C. permanently she would rush next door to invite Jeremy on a date that would end up at her house… in her bed… with her.
Until then she had to keep away from him.
© 2010 Sherrilyn Kenyon
New York Times bestselling authors Sherrilyn Kenyon, Dianna Love, and Cindy Gerard and rising romance star Laura Griffin mix seduction and suspense in three irresistible romantic adventures. From sultry international jungles to the rugged terrain of the American Southwest, join the larger-than-life, scorching-hot alpha heroes of the Bureau of American Defense, Black Ops, Inc., and the U.S. Navy SEALs for all the pulse-pounding, heart-racing, toe-curling excitement. They’re cool under pressure, steamy under the sheets, and when the enemy strikes, there’s not a lethal mission these gorgeous men can’t handle. . . .
Just Bad Enough
Sherrilyn Kenyon and Dianna Love
Leave No Trace