Authors: Kacey Mark
Cursed by Chemistry
About the Author
Cursed by Chemistry
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Cursed by Chemistry
COPYRIGHT © 2015 by Kacey Mark
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art byDiana Carlile
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewilderroses.com
First Scarlet Rose Edition, 2015
Print ISBN 978-1-5092-0412-0
Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-0413-7
Published in the United States of America
Many thanks to
Doree Anderson, Sandy Rowland, Clancy Metzger, and Keith Hale for their undying support!
Oh, great. Him again.
Shauna eyed the lone, pale SUV as it sloshed through a dark puddle and jostled into the parking lot. The streetlight’s beams glanced off the golden emblem painted on the vehicle’s door.
Her heart rate sped to a gallop.
She tossed the large stone cradled in her hand. It jumped and skittered away into the shadows.
Shauna’s glossy, white rain boots clicked over wet asphalt. Caught in the open with no place to hide, she fought the panic crawling through her and the urge to increase her pace.
She could have lost something—her wallet, maybe? That’s a time sensitive issue and a perfect excuse to be there after hours. Or she could have taken a job throwing boxes on the night crew. Her contact, Samuel, would have to cover for her.
She glanced to her berry-pink trench coat. Not really dressed to pull off manual labor. Better go with the wallet story instead.
Shauna shielded her eyes from the SUV’s blinding beams as she continued on her path to the mall’s vacant loading dock. The vehicle slowed to a crawl beside her as if trolling for an explanation. The window planed down with an electric hum.
Shauna swallowed hard, lifted her chin a notch, and continued marching. She might not be able to explain it aloud, but shedidhave every right to be there. She’d been invited. So what if the invitation had come with a three-hundred dollar price tag…
Her vision narrowed on the cement staircase ahead. She hated that sharp, full of purpose, tone—like she was in trouble. She cast the agent a brief glance before returning her focus to the twin metal doors of bay 215. She tried to steady her voice. “Huh—hi.”Yeah. Keep trying.
His voice took on a note of intrigue. Almost delight. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
She slid her gaze in his direction again and managed a weak laugh. Utah might be the Shakespearian mecca for romance and destiny, but not this encounter. This seemed more like stalking.
“This is two nights in a row, and I told you before, the mall closes at eleven.”
Shauna blinked. “Isn’t mall security a little out of your jurisdiction? Detective?”
His thin lips pressed together in pause. “Agent.” His tone hardened as he matched her accusation. “Is there some reason why you’re out here? Again?”
“I’m meeting someone.”
“The someone without a name?” he quipped.
Heat crept over her face. She stopped, tossed a help-me smile to the blanketed sky, and then pivoted to the driver’s side window. She could just make out the occupant’s shadowed features in the dashboard’s glow. What was his name again? Squid-linski? With a bulbous head and a nose like that, he could certainly pass for a squid.
“Mall’s had a rash of break-ins lately. I’m not so sure you should be out here by yourself.”
Shauna tipped her head. “But I’m not by myself.” She coated her voice with sticky-sweet sarcasm. “I have you.”
She set her shoulders and headed for the bay doors again. Just fifteen feet from the paint-crusted steps.Almost there.
The car’s engine persisted. The grit of tires on pavement followed alongside her.
“Well, that’s true…but see, here’s the problem.” His voice elevated because, apparently, Shauna had nothing better to do than listen to him all night. “I did a little checking. The mall association thinks these burglaries are an inside job.”
Shauna gripped the cold, metal railing. Her tone matched her pace as she crept up each step of the loading platform. Anxiety nipped at her ankles. “Uh-huh. Inside job. That’s great. Very interesting. Good sleuthing there. But I don’t see how that has anything to do with me. You see, I’m…outside.”
The vehicle eked to a stop. The detective—agent—whatever, threw open the door and stepped out. His tone elevated as he followed her up the stairs. “Bottom line, the dock is off limits to unauthorized visitors, especially after dark. Let’s see some ID.”
She stopped short of the door. “Like you don’t already know who I am.” With a sigh of indignation, Shauna rifled through her patent-leather billfold. “Seriously. This is borderline harassment.”
“It’s also borderline trespassing.”
She dealt him her driver’s license. “The FBI must not be paying you new guys enough these days if you’re moonlighting as a mall cop.” She hammered three short knocks on the metal door.
“Very funny.” He frowned at the plastic card. The moment of silence stretched out for what seemed like a week. “Is your friendinvisible, Miss Tamson?”
The dopey swagger of each passing second continued, and the pressure built until Shauna had few options between dashing off like an escaped mental patient and appealing to his better nature. Neither option sounded good.
Why hadn’t Samuel answered yet? He gave strict instructions to only knock once but maybe he didn’t hear it.
“It isMiss, Right?” Squidlinski persisted. “You’re not married?”
“No.”Not yet, anyway.
The contents of her stomach churned with unease. “Geez, don’t they brief you people anymore? Read your freakin’ paperwork.”
The feds had been lurking in the shadows of her life long enough for at least one lead agent to retire. Never thought she’d miss Special Agent Oaks. She even sent him flowers on his big day. The guy was old. Slow. She could outrun that one.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Yes. I have a boyfriend,” she exclaimed.
His gaze lowered to her mouth, where she had apparently been trying to gnaw her way free. “You paused there. Are you lying to me?” He tipped his head. “Do you know where liars go?”
Shauna stuffed both hands into her trench coat. She jerked them out again the moment her hand touched yet another stone seeking woolen refuge in her pocket. “I’m not lying. And since when do people get taken to jail for lying?”
“I didn’t say I’d take you in. Is that what you want?” His crooked grin widened. “There’s got to be a reason why you keep coming back here.” His heavy-lidded gaze took its time invading every curve and crevice from her mouth to knee-high boots. “Dressed like that. During my shift.”
She didn’t respond.
“Shauna.” He drew out her name as if urging her to admit to…whatever the hell he was trying to get at. He tucked both thumbs in his belt and widened his stance, her card anchored tight between his pudgy first and middle finger. “You can’t give me any other valid excuse for being here.”
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?” she asked, hoping to steer him off subject.
His Muppet-worthy unibrow peaked with feigned innocence. “Not a darn thing.”
“It’s perfectly modest.”
“A little too modest.”
She blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The agent leaned back. “Well, for a girl in your line of work…you must be pretty high priced to dress that way.”
Shawna’s mouth flapped open in offense.
He shrugged. “Give me another reason why you’re here. Who you meeting with?”
Did he just label her a prostitute? “I work at amake-up counter. Clinique, actually.” She couldn’t help the pissed-off superiority that laced into her tone. Sixteen months of cosmetology school and for what? To be labeled a streetwalker? Don’t think so.
“Clinique? Like here at the mall?”
Shauna clamped her lips between her teeth. Did she really want this federal creeper to know where she worked?
His lips curved into a victorious smile. “Uh-huh. Then why use the back door—and why would your so-called boyfriend let you wander around this late without him?”
“You know, your badge isn’t a stalking license. Why don’t you save the harassment for traditional business hours?”
The agent didn’t move.
Shauna pushed out a sigh of irritation. “My boyfriend’s busy. And besides, he doesn’t own me. He likes that I’m independent.” She cast a wistful smile heavenward in an attempt to blow off her little white lie. In reality, no way in hell would she tell Richard where she’d gone. Or why she was here.
West Valley wasn’t the safest place after dark. It wasn’t that big either, and with a name as prominent as Tenerelli, she couldn’t utter it aloud without people making the connection. Word might get back to him, and he would freak. Out.
“Look. I appreciate your mission to serve and protect the lamp posts out here,” she nodded to the pole above door 215, “and that one’s out by the way.”
She stole another quick rap on the door when the agent looked to the marred light pole and the pixie sprinkle of broken glass below it. The light’s shell held one gaping cavity where a bulb had been, and another light that buzzed and flickered in self-defense.
Lucky he hadn’t shown up earlier. Then he’d have a vandalism charge on her too.
“See. You have a stone-throwing, light-buster person to catch, and I need to be on my way.” She searched the door for some kind of knob or lever to grant her access, but a thin metal plate was welded where the doorknob should’ve been. The one way through the door was from the inside.
The agent menaced over her. “That light was fine an hour ago.”
Shauna dipped her gaze to evade him. “Wow, and I was only joking about the mall cop job. You really are working here?”
He angled his head low, denying any escape. “There are easier ways to get my attention, you know.”
“I don’t want your attention—”
The muggy heat of his arm pressed against her shoulder when he braced one hand on the door. “Now you have it.”
Yippee. Frustration itched up her sides. Another setback. She’d have to bail, contact Samuel, and hope to try again in a few hours.
Dammit, that was going to cost another three hundred. She didn’t have it. But she couldn’t just give up. Her whole future depended on this.
“Putting yourself inyet anothercompromising position.” He angled his head. “Tell me. What happens when you do that, Ms. Tamson?”
“Look, I’m real sorry I blew your cover and all. I don’t want any trouble. So I’ll just leave—”
“I don’t believe in that magic shit.” She held out her hand. “My license, please?”
“What license?” he countered.
“You really shouldn’t be driving without one by the way. Do you need a ride somewhere?” he asked.
Shauna edged away from him and toward the tin can, compact car she’d stowed across the street. “I’ll walk, thanks.” His boss would be getting a call in the morning. By the time she finished with him, he’d be downgraded to dogcatcher.
He stepped in front of her. His gaze pinned on the large button of her trench coat that fastened just below her breasts. “A little troublemaker like you shouldn’t be out wandering the streets. Let me take you home.”
“Again, thanks but no thanks.”
“Are you…resisting?” he asked.
She arched a sardonic brow. “Are you…using cheesy, porn-cop talk on me?”
His grin widened. “Maybe.”
“Eww.” She wrinkled her brow in disgust.
His frown said that wasn’t the reaction he’d hoped for. “Hey, you’re the one who started this, with your high heels and your little trench coat. I know what you’re after. I know your game.” He leaned in until his chilidog breath wafted over her face. “Nor do I like being teased.” A rancid gleam of intent lit his eyes.
Forget the stone in her pocket. Between fight and flight, her nerves were charged with enough panic that Shauna could shimmy up the lamppost faster than a shiny vampire. “Look. You really seem to have the wrong impression.”
She edged to one side. “I’m flattered and all. But honestly, I have a boyfriend.”
“Even if you do, he’s not here. Is he?”
She retreated another step. “He’s here. He’s,” she lifted her voice, “Samuel?”
The agent made a skeptical snort and angled toward the crook of her neck. His arms curled around her torso.
“Sam. Sammy…shit!” She pushed at the agent’s chest and twisted for the steps. “Oh gross. Get away.” Her voice dripped disgust.
His squeezing pressure around her midsection increased. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck tingled. The rapid-fire sensation chased down her arms as the surface of her skin crackled and heated.
A cold lump of dread dropped into her stomach. The warmth inside her body rushed to the surface. The porcelain skin on her hands took on a lobster hue. Anger and determination blasted through her body, stoking her external temperature.
She would not be a victim again.
She may not be able to control it, but she’d use it, by God. If she had to, she’d kill him. Her palms slicked with moisture. “Let go!” she screeched.
It was coming.
If he didn’t release her, she wouldn’t be able to stop it. A girl can only afford so many death-by-inferno cards. Even with self-defense paying the bill, it was still expensive on the conscience.
The energy in her muscles drained and grew cold. Her arms weakened. Her elbows ready to snap at the hinges as the heat turned up and her body turned helpless.
She shrunk down in her coat-turned-pressure-cooker and twisted to escape from the agent’s grasp.
Somehow, his grip slipped. He rushed to regain his hold.
She jerked out of reach.
The moment her head managed to follow the direction her legs were taking her, she stumbled down the steps and yelped in surprise. Shauna smacked into a cool, bony chest. A puff of freesia-scented steam escaped her coat on impact. Her nose crushed against his sharp collarbone. She tried using her momentum to pinball away, but thin arms clamped down on her.
“Hey, baby,” a familiar voice purred. Strands of limp, copper-colored hair brushed her cheek. “Did I scare you?”
“Samuel!” she gasped. The pungent aroma of his body odor, cardboard, and axle grease coated her senses, and like a hot poker plunged into water, her skin cooled. She turned in his arms to face the squid and tried to act more relieved than repulsed.
“I said the east door,east, not south. And you’re late.” A slight edge hardened Samuel’s tone. One that didn’t seem to fit the whole freckle-faced, schoolboy thing he had going on. “But we’ll spank you for that later…” He paused.
A look of surprise creased his ruddy brow at the faint hissing sound that came from under her coat. He eased his grip. “What you got cookin’ in there?” he asked.
The agent swiped Shauna’s card from the ground near his feet. “You know this girl?”
Samuel paused from peeling back the edge of Shauna’s coat as if just noticing the agent. “Hey, Squeelinski.”
“It’s Squid-linski,” Shauna spat. She swatted at Samuel’s curious hand.
“Squa-linski. Get it right,” the agent snapped. His putout frown deepened. “How do you know my name?”
“Nah, she’s right. I like squid better. And for the record, I know everybody.” Samuel looked at Shauna and his lips turned pouty. He looped an arm around her shoulders and led her away. His voice took on a patronizing lilt. “Did that man-handling squidster touch you? Did he?”
Shauna hesitated. Her tone deflated. “No.” The last thing she needed was for someone else to fight her battles. Hell, the opponent might evensurvivethat way. Besides, if she caused more of a scene, she might as well kiss this meeting goodbye.
She hesitated. “But I think he molested my license.”
“Damn,” Samuel muttered with an emphatic sigh. He lowered his head in feigned annoyance then twisted around, snatching the card from Squidlinski’s reluctant hand. Samuel moved forward again, and lifted his voice as if barking to the agent behind them. “Try harder next time. I need a better excuse than a piece of plastic if I’m gonna kick your ass.” He jerked on a chain protruding from a single door on the east corner of the building.
Shauna glanced up. The light had already been dimmed here. Samuel had told her a dark light post would be her signal. He never said it would be darkenedfor her. She closed her eyes. Of all the stupid—
The door swung open, and Samuel yanked Shauna inside.
The agent moved to follow. He opened his mouth. The scowl marring his forehead indicated a disgruntled reply, but before any words escaped, Samuel slammed the door.
The crash of metal echoed though the storeroom. He wrapped the chain around the door’s inside handle. Therattle-clang, rattle-clangbeat through the room with each pass around the bar.
Samuel muttered between passes. “Do you have any idea…how hard it is…to get people in here? You’ve gotten caught not once, but twice. What the hell! And FBI…?” He shot her a glance as he retrieved a padlock from the end of the chain. “He rarely accepts anyone anymore, you know that?—by the way, you throw like a girl, and I told you to wear something dark. That’s not dark.”
It’s dark pink.She wanted to argue, but doing so would only fuel his anger.
Shauna knew her choice of dress was a risk. Adrian Sands liked his customers low profile. But Shauna knew something about Adrian her contact didn’t. This had been Adrian’s favorite color. Maybe not his favorite color in the whole world, but he had specifically picked this color for her.
Her memory spun back to Adrian Sands. To the man he used to be. She’d known him throughout her small-town childhood as the neighborhood hottie. But with a two-year age gap, they were incompatible back then.
Pifft…with the number of wars they fought, the term “incompatible” had been an understatement. It wasn’t until college that they formed any shred of an awkward truce.
Even at the age of twenty-three, he wasn’t a big talker. His broad posture and brilliant smile might have said “large and impressive,” and who knew, maybe he was—even between the sheets. But that illusion never confirmed or denied itself, even to the most provocative of community college cheerleaders. The power of raging hormones was no match for Adrian’s blockade of good manners. No wonder he’d made the best house dad in Sigma Phi Epsilon history.
Shauna has been busy pledging to her own sorority the night of the SigEp hosted party. Even in a surging crowd with music thumping loud enough to blur her vision, the laser sights of Alpha Chi Omega were still trained on her from every corner.
“You. On the stairs!”
Shauna turned to the blonde-haired boy near the kitchen. His lips stretched to a cheesy grin and pointed to the paper cup he held high above the masses. “Drink?”
“How about a Coke?”
His pale brows cinched in disbelief. “What?”
Shauna cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “A Coke!” as the music lulled. Her words bullhorned through the frat house, and several heads turned in her direction. Laughter bubbled through the crowd as the music picked up again.
“I think she wants a Coke,” offered a spaghetti-strapped redhead who appeared to be holding her own at the beer pong table. The attention wandered away, until Shauna caught the weight of one pair of eyes that had locked and held. The warmth that had receded from her cheeks returned full force.
Lounging in a battered chair with one ankle propped on his knee, Adrian Sands regarded her with an arch of his raven brow. Not a seductive, fancy-meeting-you brow lift. A what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here, don’t-you-think-you’re-a-little-young brow lift.
Shauna should know. When Adrian played her neighborhood big brother, she’d seen it hundreds of times. His hottie-authoritative combo made the perfect formula for years of closet fantasies and self-pleasuring role-play.
One by one, those thoughts marched through Shauna’s brain like an erotic circus on parade.
Pity. She’d grown old enough to sneak a peek inside his big tent, but he still wanted to play safety net.
Was it the Coke she’d ordered that gave him license to treat her like a child? How could that one look of disapproval turn her stomach into such a shaken snow globe of excitement? With every chair and dark corner occupied, Shauna slunk down on the stairs. Maybe she should have ordered something stronger.
“Here you go, pretty girl.” A freckled hand lifted the drink through the stair railing.
Her reflection danced back at her in the darkened liquid. Did she look that out of place?
“Well, don’t just sit there. Drink up.” His limp tangle of blonde hair flapped up and down as string-cheese-boy shifted and trotted past other partygoers on his way up the stairs.
Adrian’s gaze shifted to the boy, and his eyes seemed to narrow.
Maybe Shauna hadn’t done anything after all; maybe Adrian was in one of those hate-everybody moods. That seemed more fitting. She’d never managed to score his attention before. Why start now?
The flat, lukewarm drink left a chalky film on Shana’s tongue. Her bottom lip pulled into a frown. Her next, tentative sip sloshed over her lips as string boy bumped her shoulder.
“That’ll be five dollars.” He sighed as he lowered himself next to her. “Or you could just tell me your name.”
Shauna took another sip and looked away. “Is this diet?” She offered the cup back. “For five bucks, I’d prefer the drink I ordered.”
He nudged the cup back. “Come on, don’t make me feel bad. It’s all we had left.”
She looked to Adrian again. A wide-shouldered man had stepped in front of him, blocking Shauna’s view.
Something had changed in him. She craned her neck for a better glimpse, but she couldn’t see his face. Adrian’s hands had clamped on the arms of his chair, and he leaned forward, his posture tensed as if ready to strike. If she had to guess, the wide-shouldered guy had just given him some very bad news. Adrian looked ready to pummel him.
Of all the crappy timing. Shauna rose to her feet and stared at the shoulder blockade. Just a little to the left and she’d get the full view again—a kibble toss of excitement to the yapping poodle that was her curiosity. What sort of news could possibly animate the immovable Adrian?
Shauna’s attention spun back to the blond boy who’d planted himself beside her. “What?”
“I said, are you pledging?”
“Yeah.” She waved the questioner away.
“Well then, you’d better catch up,” string-cheese-boy persisted, pushing the cup back into her hand.
From her vantage point over the rim of the cup, Shauna caught sight of Adrian again as he jumped to his feet. A piercing look of determination darkened his features, and his chin jerked in her direction.Was that really meant for her?
As if on command, the shoulder barricade turned, and the man started for the stairs. Adrian fell in step behind him, picking up speed. A growl of hurricane force rage seemed to pull from every corner of the room, as Adrian heaved a mighty breath.
Had she heard that right? Shauna’s heart leaped to attention and pumped out an urgent distress signal at first sight of the menacing clench of his jaw.
But one step closer and the snow globe in her stomach seemed to shatter.Act cool. Act cool.The excitement overpowered everything and fought her lips into a hopeless, groupie smile.
She lowered the cup just as the liquid jumped into her face. It splashed down her shirt, rendering her white-silk, butterfly-sleeved top completely ruined. She gasped at the wide-shouldered man who lay face down a few steps away. Adrian had apparently shoved him forward, dominoing the mass of stoop monkeys right into her.
He never did offer her an explanation that night, just a box one hour later that contained a new shirtas colorful as she wasand an invitation to Casa de Adrian for the night.
Which she refused.
Well, except for the shirt. That berry-pink, sewn-in-heaven, wonder of a blouse came from Saks Fifth Avenue. It had been the most expensive item she’d ever owned.
Perhaps he’d been trying to protect her from the date-rape drug that laced her drink that night or the destruction of her self-respect a few hours later. But it’s easy to pin nobilities on a girl’s first crush.
Shauna flung the memory away. He had still offered his room that night. He still wanted something from her, just like the rest of them. He wasn’t as innocent as he’d led her to believe.
Any opportunity to appeal to that marred nobility from years ago could save her future. If she could stand out and sweet talk him, it might earn her the privilege of being treated for her unwanted singe-skills.
“You know, you’re not very bright. Pretty, but not bright,” Samuel assessed.
She grinned. Some of that might come naturally, but for Adrian, she’d dress it up a little. Act dumb and flaunt the package. If Adrian had some sort of weakness for her, she’d find it. She had to.
Her thoughts brick-walled as Samuel shoved a paper bag over her head. “Hey!” She moved to tear the bag free.
Samuel caught her hands.
Samuel’s voice elevated over the crinkling sound of the attack paper bag. “Stop…Stop! It’s the rules. He doesn’t see you. You don’t see him. It’s how these things stay secret. Deal with it or leave.”
Shauna jerked her shoulders away. “Okay, fine.”
Samuel hooked her wrist and tugged her forward. “Let’s just get this over with.”
She kept her head down and dodged the boxes, shelves, and advertising signs that littered the narrow view at her feet.
“You’re lucky he’s still here. He’s usually gone by now. Moved to the next drop zone.”
Shauna swallowed. Right. Him. The man she’d come to see. No longer the frat house overseer or the model neighbor boy but the elusive miracle worker, Adrian Sands. Shauna caught word of him not long after she dropped out of college for cosmetology.
The tiniest of patients at Primary Children’s Burn Unit had been making recoveries beyond medical explanation. The staff was sworn to secrecy, but it’s apparently inhuman for people toactuallykeep a secret. Word got out and the entire nation turned their microscope on Utah and Adrian, the local researcher, who had flipped the medical community upside-down.
Of course, the pimple-ridden debutants and wrinkle-fearing celebrities were the first to swarm. But the moment Adrian Sands’ name came out, he disappeared.
If he could reverse the effects of charred skin and cooked muscle, maybe he could help with her own high-temperature affliction. Before time ran out.
Her mind whirred to a different memory from the SigEp party. Those few hours later seemed a lifetime away from flat drinks and staircase brawls. Where pained screams and ambulance sirens drowned out the thumping music and the smell of burnt bodies would forever brand her soul.
Shauna shook the memory from her head. She couldn’t think about that. She had been a survivor, not a victim, and she hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. With a little luck from Adrian, it would never happen again. She could fall apart later, but for now—focus.
Classic rock swarmed Shauna’s paper bag as she entered some sort of concrete clearing and the toasted smell of spice and frankincense invaded her nose. Aclinkof glasses came from somewhere on her right, followed by a muttered curse and shifting steps. Her stomach twisted. Only one person in the room, as far as she could tell, and Shauna had a pretty good idea of whom.
“What is it, Sam?” His mellow baritone held that same gruff edge. Shauna’s heart recognized it and chimed off an erratic response.
Oh, come on. She tried to quell the giddy tension in her chest. He might be a medical icon, and sexy as hell, but the guy was still a guy. A small-town guy—regardless of where he’d been the last ten years. He took off his pants the same as everyone else, one leg at a time.
A metalclickwould sound as he loosened his belt, followed by a snap of leather that cut through the room as he pulled it free. Then the quick and deliberate grate of his zipper. The image of tanned, muscle-corded thighs, and a prominent male appendage appeared as he shoved his jeans down, a motion that was all authority and purpose. Each deliberate step forward would cause his erect cock to nod an upward beat. The tempo, a lurid promise of the power it could deliver. One full, heavy thrust at a time.
The heat turned up inside her paper bag.
This time it had nothing to do with her unwanted defensive mechanism.
Shauna squeezed her eyes shut. Putsonhis pants. That’s how the saying went.
How fair was this? The mere sound of his voice sent her mind on a hasty jailbreak. It fled east of Beef Cake Street and promptly snapped its chain. Gone.
She could never evoke that kind of response from Adrian.
Not that it would hurt to try. If it took pulling out every dirty trick in her girly arsenal, she’d do it. With her fiancé, Richard, pushing the celibacy issue on an almost a daily basis, and her wedding night looming in just three months’ time, she had to persuade him in any way possible to cure her problem.
She cleared her throat, the sound more timid than she wanted. She tried again, louder this time, guessing she still hadn’t claimed his full attention.
Adrian always functioned with a singular focus. To divert him would be next to impossible. Even if a naked cancan dancer high-kicked through the room, he wouldn’t look up. Not to mention, Shauna wasn’t a dancer.
And she had a bag on her head.
“Adrian—” she started.
“You don’t talk.” Samuel whispered. His voice turned in Adrian’s direction. “Hey, big guy.”
“Hey yourself…and who’s that?” Adrian asked his voice rather flat and unaffected.
“Sort of a special request.” Samuel strained his words in a sly undertone. She could just imagine his arms splayed out like a swarthy magician. Or aPrice is Rightmodel.
The price was a little high to be truthful.
The noncommittal grunt that came from Adrian seemed less than fascinated with Samuel’s mystical introduction.
“And I know how you enjoy a challenge,” Samuel prodded.
Adrian’s response came sporadically as the shift of boxes and shuffling feet continued. “I think you have me confused…with you.”
Shauna’s frustration percolated under the bag. He was shutting her down. She pushed out a huff of annoyance. “Can I take this off now?”
“No,” the boys answered in unison.
Shauna paused. How about that. A reaction. Not exactly the one she’d hoped for, but a good start. “This isn’t fair. How can you fully consider my case without putting a face to it?”
“You want a face?” Samuel asked.
Shauna heard a pop. “What—”
“Hold still.” Samuel snared her chin and held her there amid the panicked crinkle of brown paper.
She shoved at his hand and thrust her head back. “Stop it.” The sound came out more annoyed than panicked. Like some unfortunate pet that fought the sweater and lost. She couldn’t escape the assaulting smell of ink, in the form of two scribble marks for her eyes and the curvy line of what must have been her mouth.
“Here ya go…there,” Samuel sounded a little too satisfied for his own good. He stepped back.
Adrian’s voice held only passive dismissal. “I don’t think she’s smiling under there.”
“Trust me, this is better… On second thought, her frown is kinda sexy.” Samuel seemed to contemplate. “Maybe if I—”
Shauna put up her hands when Samuel neared again. “You touch me with that marker, and I’ll scream.”
Shauna could hear the grin in his voice. “Fine…be ornery then. But just so you know, you’re smiling on the outside.”
The paper bag crinkled as Shauna planted her fist on her hip. “Okay, that’s it. Are you going to hear my case or not?”
“No?” Her breath caught in a futile attempt for an explanation, a point to argue, something! He had to treat her. He just had to.
“Believe it or not, princess, you’re going to hear that word a lot in your young life. Get used to it,” Adrian said.
Princess?Shauna’s anger sparked. “Just who the hell do you think I am?”
Adrian paused between the scrape of boxes. His voice returned even more distracted than before. “Ugh…Strawberry shortcake?”
Shauna’s shoulders dropped in their sockets. Well, at least he noticed the outfit.
“But you don’t even know what you’re treating her for yet,” Samuel complained.
The bag crinkled as Shauna turned in Samuel’s direction. She paused. Since when had he been on her side?
“I’m busy enough as it is. If you want this serum finished by tomorrow…” Adrian countered.
“You finished it three hours ago. Now you’re just farting around.”
The reassuring weight of Samuel’s hands rested on her shoulders.
“Dude, this one’s special.”
“Aren’t theyallspecial?” Adrian drawled. “Really, you might want to focus on getting rid of your old flames before you build new ones.”
“What can I say? Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none—” Samuel seemed to stop short. “Okay. Sorry.” He leaned toward Shauna and funneled quick words near her paper barrier. “Just a note, he doesn’t like Shakespeare.”
“I get lonely,” Samuel tried again. “The serum will take care of flame number one. I’m just lining up my rebound. No harm in that.”
“I’m not your rebound,” Shauna muttered. “You wanna see flames? I’ll show you freaking flames.” Despite Samuel’s…revolting yet honorable efforts, the value of Shauna’s situation dripped away, one millisecond at a time. Any moment Adrian would boot her out.
She lifted her voice. “No one else can help me, and I am not leaving. Take one look at me, Adrian Sands, and tell me you’re not treating me. Say it to my face.”
“I’m not treating you. Though it’s kinda hard to be serious with that look on your um…bag.”
Shauna fisted the paper and the tearing sound silenced the room. “Not good enough. Try again.” When Shauna tossed the bag aside, she found a tight-jawed look of anger altering Adrian’s initial surprise.
Her shoulders set back with victory, just before Samuel stepped in front as if to shield Adrian from some crazed groupie.
Shauna smoothed a hand over her hair and leaned deep to one side to see around Samuel. “You’re not the easiest man to find, by the way.”
Adrian’s chest rippled as he folded his arms, partially obscuring the GNC logo on his chest. He offered a faint, congratulatory nod. “Yet here you are.”
“You’ve been here, this close, the whole time?” Shauna demanded. “How?” The small town seemed to have an impenetrable orbit. No one ever left this place, but somehow she always expected Adrian to be immune to that sort of thing. Miles away on a yacht somewhere. With the public hunting him, how the hell did he manage to stay invisible?
Adrian didn’t respond.
“So, you know each other?” Samuel demanded.
Shauna sent him a bitter grin. “Oh sure! He threw me ina pondonce.”
Samuel sat back. “Oh. How romantic.”
“I heard about your work at the children’s hospital,” she tried again.
He tipped his head. “We’re not at the hospital, and you’re no child.”
“No.” She lifted a defiant brow. “Far from it, but thanks for finally noticing.”
“You don’t seem to have any burns,” Adrian continued. His attention returned to the canister in front of him.
Samuel shifted to block her on the right. She jockeyed left. “Again, thanks for noticing. But you’re right. My problem’s different.” She shoved at Samuel’s shoulder when he blocked her again. “I’m the one that does the burning.”
“Only not children. I would never do that to a child.” She swallowed. “Just to men.”
“I feel that,” Samuel added. “She is pretty haaawt.”
“I want to get rid of it.”
“Why?” Adrian didn’t look up from the table.
“Because—” Did it really need further explanation? Marriage, children, herfuture. It all depended on him.
“Sammy there doesn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable,” Adrian stated.
Shauna recognized the press of Samuel’s palm, holding her at length. She managed to deflect it with an irritated shove of her hand. “That’s because it’s…it’s a more intimate reaction.”
The glass vial of amber-colored fluid looked so tiny between Adrian’s fingertips as he nestled it into a container of powdered supplements. He twisted the lid with a few agitated flicks of his wrist and tossed it into a box. “Well, whatever it is, it’s not life threatening. I’m sure you can work around it.”
Samuel’s voice grew with enthusiasm. “Yeah…we can experiment a little.”
A squeal rang out as Adrian swiped a packing tape dispenser across the box. “You’re too busy for any more experiments.” Adrian threw the box with a sharp flick of his wrist. The basketball-sized parcel shot end over end in a tight spiral until it collided with Samuel’s torso.
Samuel jostled the box in his fingertips for a moment, then cradled it to chest. “Hey, careful.”
“Stay out of my chocolates from now on.” Adrian turned to leave. “Get her out of here.” That last bit sounded almost like an afterthought.
Shauna’s mouth hinged open with offense. He had forgotten about her before she’d even left.
Samuel gave her a once-over. He offered an apologetic shrug, and motioned a hand towards the exit. “Better luck next time I guess. Oh, and by the way, no refunds.”
How could he do that? How could Adrian just dismiss her like that?
“I don’t have time for this,” she pleaded.
Adrian’s snide tone echoed through the hall. “Late for a nail appointment?”
She glanced around the room for something to throw at the back ofhis perfectly groomed head. There, on the table, amid a scattering of dark business cards, she spied an apothecary jar full of brightly wrapped chocolates and rushed for it.
She attempted to lift the jar. The weight of it told her she’d never be able to throw far enough to make contact. What were these things made of? Solid lead? She lifted the lid, ready to fire a fist full of chocolate projectiles. The glass clinked.
The sound seemed to stop Adrian in mid-retreat down the hall. He returned.
Her gaze zeroed in on his chest. Center mass. Even better.
“Take two,” Samuel whispered.
“They’re not for her.” An ember of warning seemed to glow in the depths his voice. It was little, but it was there, and something about that tone itched at Shauna’s naughty side.
Adrian started toward her.
Samuel looked to Adrian and back to Shauna. His voice grew in urgency. “You’ll probably need two. And one for me. Okay, so that’s three.”
Shauna’s vision returned to its target and she scooped an entire handful. Loose candies tumbled to the floor on the way to her pocket and snapped near her feet.
Adrian planted both palms on the table that stood between them. He leveled her with a threatening look. “Put those back.”
Adrian tipped his head in challenge.
She shot him a smarmy grin and batted her lashes. “Get used to that word, Poindexter, because I’m not taking it for an answer.”
That adorably stupid, pain-in-the-ass woman.
Agitated steps carried him the length of the darkened GNC store before he met the wall and spun back the way he’d come. Where was he going? Hell, if he knew, but Adrian couldn’t leave. He only had one way out after the gates closed, andshewas out there. No doubt growling like a pissy kitty because he’d refused her.
But that kind of magic doesn’t get undone. Especially because he didn’t know how he’d done it in the first place. He’s never intended for the flame powder to be deadly or even permanent. Teaching those hormone-driven frat boys a lesson hadn’t even been in the equation, but they’d learned all right.
So had Adrian. Never step blind in the world of apothecary again.
From the moment Adrian’s father first caught him playing with Shauna, the Barbie next door, he’d been warned.Those feelings have power. You can’t wield them without losing control.
Barbie grew more powerful the older she became, and in the end, his father had been right. His own infatuation for Shauna had screwed him. Oh, he had kept his distance from the tender-yeared doll, just as his father had cautioned, while one relationship after another failed.
And why? Adrian massaged the tight cords of muscle between his shoulder blades. Good question. What was the point in staying away from Shauna if all the lower pedestals failed him anyway? Go big or go home, right?
Adrian snorted. He went big all right. The moment he decided to take control of the frat-party situation with that innocently powdered sweater, his power contorted into something far worse than he’d ever intended.
Now she wanted him to fix it.
He took a deep breath, trying to cleanse the faint smell of freesia and syrup from his lungs.
He couldn’t. It permeated everything. He blew the air out again and sent the stack of receipts near the cash register fluttering. He’d detected it the moment she stepped in. The tiny grains of infatuation in her seemed to form a tidal wave that sloshed through the entire room.
With his heightened awareness for chemical reactions, Adrian didn’t stand a chance. A scent like that could send an entire fleet of apothecaries to their knees. Good thing there weren’t many of them. Maybe three or four in the state of Utah—less if they came anywhere near his girl. Then there’d be only one.
Adrian paused. Scowled.His girl? He shook his head.
The siren’s song of wet heat between her thighs called out to him, and his body caved. Lucky his brain managed to hold on. His body’s reaction had been purely instinctual. A little excessive, but his three-week sexual drought could explain that.
Or so he’d thought. Until she tore through that paper and his deep thinker went from semi-erect to near crashing through the table. She had changed over the years. Gone from adorable and adventurous to…to…preened for the groping hands of high society. Not that his cock cared much.
The entire time he argued with her, it swelled and pointed as if to say: she’s right there…right…Oh…for the love of…will you just hurdle the table and bury me already? I’m about to explode here!
In that moment, he knew helping Shauna wouldn’t be possible. Even after surpassing his hormonal peak, and screwing three dozen other women, his lust for her hadn’t diminished. It only increased. The urge to spread her boot-clad legs wide…it felt beyond primal.
And that thing she did with her eyes. She’d learned a trick or two with men over the years. But had anyone seen them with the lust-filled glare he could coax out of her?
Adrian paced the length of the room again. He’d kicked her out. But could he really leave her alone after this? Shauna threw fate a major interception by showing up here. She disclosed her identity and blew his cover at the same time. According to Samuel, the FBI was already on her tail. How long had that been going on? It wouldn’t be hard for the feds to connect the dots right to him.
Or worse, the O could be wooing her within the hour.
“Good hell.” Adrian punched a nearby display tower. The powder-filled canisters and pill bottles exploded in every direction. Some hit the ground and busted open on impact, while others rolled a few feet away from the chaos. “Hellhellhell.” His growl intensified to a roar. “Fuck!”
Samuel’s voice lifted with intrigue as he entered. “Bringing out the big-boy words. I’m impressed, A. It’s like duck-duck-goose…only more fun.”
Adrian pierced him with a fierce scowl and pitched a stray canister at his head. “Shouldn’t you be gone by now?”
Samuel’s eyes grew wide. He dodged left. The canister exploded in a cloud of smoke and powder as it hit the wall. Samuel held up his hands in surrender. “Yeah, if some grizzled vagrant hadn’t stopped me in the parking lot.” Samuel shuffled cautious steps through the dust at his feet and held out a large envelope. “He wanted me to give you this.”
Adrian swiped the envelope. His tone grew distant as he studied the paper. “Grizzled vagrant, now look who’s pulling out the big words.”
Samuel couldn’t seem to contain the grin that split across his face. “Not my words, his. I asked the bum who he was. That’s what he told me, A. Grizzled vagrant. Like that was his name or something.”
Adrian mentally shook his head. The name didn’t matter. The chicken scratches that formed the letter ‘A’ and the scent stain of crushed cloves told him exactly who the messenger was.
A eunuch.The Eunuch,to be precise; the one-and-only, hobbling, messenger boy of the Oracle. He had no real name and only one purpose. To deliver bad news.
He handed the paper back to Samuel. “You read it.”
Samuel gave him a you’re-being-a-baby kind of look, before retrieving the envelope and peeling it open. All right, so maybe he was. But the Shauna bomb was enough bad news for one night. Maybe if Samuel opened the letter, it would dole all that rotten luck on him instead.
Samuel cleared his throat. “It says, your presence is requested by honor of the Oracle.”
Adrian snarled. “I don’t have time for this.”
“It says make time.” Samuel squinted at the paper. “P.S. Samuel, the candy jar is unguarded. Quick, run.” Samuel looked up. “What do you think he means by that?”
Show your face and get the hell out.
Adrian gritted his teeth as he approached the glass. Bold letters forming the name “Big O’s Toy Box” were fogged with print smudges and grime from the countless clients who had passed through here.
His lungs tensed as Adrian suppressed his ability for chemical reconnaissance and grasped the handle. Sometimes it was better not to know where things had been.
He set his mental stopwatch for the twenty-one and a half minutes it usually took to get back out and yanked the door open with one hand. He covered half the distance to the Oracle’s pulpit before the door sealed shut. The metallic, autumn air and rush of evening traffic died behind him, replaced with pulsing music and muggy warmth.
The owner leaned forward from the pedestaled checkout counter. His sand-colored hair took on a brash, pink glow from the halo of neon lights overhead. Even for Adrian’s six-two, the counter seemed unusually high.
The shiny, plastic structure served two purposes: elevate the Oracle’s ego and put his customers in their place, like scurrying rats, eager to pay and escape with their trinkets tucked under their arm.
Adrian should know. He’d been the rat often enough he’d actually lost his testosterone-driven taste for hardcore silicone and bone-seeping perfume.
At first glance, it seemed odd—why would an oracle run a sex-toy shop? But in truth, the wares weren’t much different. Both forms of business served to provide immediate gratification that no one really needed.
Says the man who just became the next customer in line. Irritation itched in Arian’s veins. He was hooked, and he knew it. Adrian didn’t want to know how his life—or lack thereof—turned out. He wanted to beat the system and conquer his family’s curse. Doing so meant slurping up whatever flavor of shit the Oracle had to offer and using it to his advantage.
The Oracle squinted through horn-rimmed glasses at his monitor. A grin of delight plied into the globes of fat most people called cheeks. He looked every bit the Buddha’s white-trash cousin. Not the kind of guy who sought enlightenment. He tripped over it, often days, or if lucky, minutes ahead of time, and boasted of his find to any dumbass who would believe him.
And that made Adrian king of Dumbassdom, didn’t it? He breathed an impatient sigh. Maybe more of that autumn pollution outside would cool his mood.
The Oracle’s self-indulgent drone—which had been going on for some time—rose in greeting as Adrian approached. “—not in the number of breaths we take but from the moments that take our breath away…like.” The Oracle emphasized the last word with a pointed click of his finger.
Adrian didn’t bother suppressing his eye-roll. For an all-seeing deity, one would think the Oracle would be the first person to discover social networking. Not the last.
Well, let’s be honest, he still thought he was the first.
“What’s got you in such a poor mood, Adrian Sands…Sands….Adrian Sands?” he sang. The Oracle’s thick shoulders dipped to one side then the other in time to the overhead music, like a pair of overweight merry-go-round ponies. That same stupid jingle greeted Adrian every time he came here. “Not that I don’t justadorethe brooding type.”
And what was it about always using his full name? Only his mother had that right, and she’d died the day she gave it to him. The spider-line threads that bound Adrian’s heart pulled tighter. Yet another glimpse of the Apothecary curse in action. One of the many reasons Adrian hated prophecy in all its forms—and the main reason why the Oracle loved to pester him.
“Ohh and bitter.” The Oracle clicked his thick tongue, but his attention held on the monitor.
Do. Not. Respond.
The Oracle’s head swiveled atop the thick folds of his neck. His thin lips pursed to one side. “Boy, you need a vacation or a massage or something.”
How does someone lisp with a tongue that big? Probably something he’d mastered over several centuries. Oracles had an unusual lifespan. Unlike Apothecaries—thank God. Death, at the ripe ole age of sixty or so, would be Adrian’s one release from his loveless misery. But then again, in death he would probably be written in the night sky, a perpetual arm’s-length from his one true love. That’s the kind of fate the universe hands you when you go screwing with the world’s most famous star-crossed lovers.
Or if your grandfather does it for you. Or even your great-great-great grandfather—
“Why, you pouty little drama queen. You’re darkening my entire domicile.” The Oracle lifted his head from the screen and snapped the laptop shut.
Adrian crossed his arms. “I haven’t said a word.” Until now. Damn it. Adrian closed his eyes and tossed out his mental stopwatch. No telling how long it would take now. “Just get to the point.”
“How am I supposed to make a living here, selling joy toys to the masses, with you acting all—” The Oracle waved his arms in a conjuring motion. “—wilty-wallflower on me.”
“The point. You do have one, right?”
“Your heart hasn’t even been broken yet.” The Oracle continued his rant unhindered.
Adrian plucked a travel-sized packet of lube from its clear, plastic candy bin and pretended to study the back label. He muttered under his breath. “Could have had a million other guides, and this is what I’m stuck with. An attention-deficient deity.”
The Oracle’s lips twisted in mock disgust. “Love sucks. You’re a hermit beyond your years, boy.” The Oracle turned. “Why did I bring you here, anyway?”
“Is that rhetorical?”
The Oracle’s grotesque orange and yellow, candy-corn sweater jiggled as he let out a pelican’s bark of laughter. “Of course it’s a rhetorical. I already know why I brought you. I knoweverything.”
“Then you shouldn’t needanythingfrom me.”
Adrian paused. Most days, he could pacify his urge to strangle the deity and keep his opinions in check, but this time proved more difficult.
He’d forgotten just how powerful Shauna’s pheromones had been and about their unpredictable half-life. The effect on him was wearing off, but as always, it came with the most annoying of adverse reactions.
That love’s lost, heart-sickened, why-don’t-I-eat-a-bullet feeling that always overcame him. The entire basis for gauging just how dangerous Shauna could be for him. And vice versa.
A cold net of awareness collapsed over Adrian. Good hell. The Oracle’s timing couldn’t have been better, and judging by the Oracle’s smarmy expression, he’d planned it like that. Adrian wasn’t here for some sordid task. He had been summoned…for entertainment?
He narrowed his vision to the Oracle’s slender nose. It didn’t really fit his face. Pointy, not bloody enough. It could stand some rearranging. As far as mortality went, the common cockroach didn’t have nothin’ on these guys. To die, Oracles must suffer a violent death. And for that job, Adrian just might start polishing his resume.
He stepped forward, ready to hurdle the counter.
The Oracle raised both hands. “Okay, okay. I do want one thing.”
“Get to it then,” Adrian snapped.
The Oracle’s thick tongue darted out, and then disappeared again. He glanced to the Eunuch whose thin frame skulked out from the cyan and fuchsia beaded curtain that guarded the back room.
The Eunuch moved forward with an outstretched hand, his smile strained and bright. Several dollars were clamped between his bony fingers.
Adrian frowned. “What’s this?” But the guy didn’t speak, not in front of the deity. A lesson Adrian still hadn’t mastered.Damn it.
Adrian’s attention rounded back to the Oracle as he drum-soloed along with the pulsing overhead music. His eyes squeezed shut in rapture, a pink, jelly dildo in one fist and a blue one in the other. They flopped back and forth, smacking the laptop’s cover then the Oracle’s wrist, and back again.Sure hope those don’t find their way into some lady’s purse later.Adrian swallowed back the gag that threatened to mar his hopefully impassive features.
“Maybe I should come back. When you’re medicated.”
“Already told you, Adrian Sands, I don’t need medication to function.” He wanded one dildo along the chair-puddled length of his body. “This is one-hundred percent pure awesomeness. Connecting to my enlightened state—”
“—is like bumper bowling with my grandma. Get on with it.”
The Oracle sniffed. “You misunderstand my perception of things.” His eyes half closed, and he settled his hands. “I take in information as I see fit. When a rare specimen such as you graces my presence, I have a natural curiosity. Distractions ensue…”
“Would you like me to knock your ass back on course?”
The Oracle’s lips curved to a sly grin. “Oh, now you’re just teasing me.” The Oracle’s attention traveled Adrian’s full length. Hopefully he hadn’t missed the clenched fists, or the boot that was just begging to drop kick his face.
“If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you prick us—”
“Youarea prick,” Adrian muttered. Oh, the games this guy played could make even the strongest of men vomit. With the Oracle’s reputation as an imbiber of all things lurid, Adrian knew better than to threaten him. It only made the guy want to play harder. Secretly, the Oracle seemed to enjoy Adrian’s sour moods more than his complacent ones.
The Oracle chuckled. His shoulders twitched in a sort of victorious wiggle. “Oh. Yes. I remember why I called you here.” He set his rubbery drumsticks aside and motioned the Eunuch toward Adrian. The Oracle’s messenger pushed the bills into Adrian’s hand.
“You have a new toy,” the Oracle declared.
Adrian nodded to the beaded curtain at the back of the store. “I think you own every toy in the metropolitan area.”
“No—yourtoy. Your little doll. You’ve got one. In fact, I believe you’ve been hiding her for some time.”
His heart thumped at the walls of his chest. In Adrian’s early years of teenage promiscuity, he had mastered the shielding powder—and his ability to bring Shauna in contact with it on the thirteenth day of every month. It kept her well hidden from the Oracle. After college, he’d eradicated Shauna from his life. It wasn’t long after that, he was using the powder to makehimselfdisappear. The thought of hiding her hadn’t even crossed his mind until she tore through that bag and by then, it was too late.
“What light through your window breaks, my boy?” the Oracle prompted again.
Adrian tried to sound impassive. “You’ve never been interested in any of my relationships before.”
“But this one’s special, isn’t she?”
“Not to mention, you’re gay.”
The Oracle sat back. “It’s true. I prefer the strength and stamina of a more virile crowd. But your toy isn’t for me. Not really. You see, Nightingale’s is getting a little stale these days. The same followers every night leave nothing to look forward to. So I’m calling in some rather unusual recruits. Stirring things up a little.”
“No.” Adrian leveled his glare. There would be no bargaining on this one. O’Nightingale’s, the dirtiest underground nightclub in all of Utah, would burn to the ground the moment Shauna stepped inside—with her in it.
Didn’t the Oracle know that?
“What are you afraid of?” the Oracle demanded.
Adrian didn’t respond. The complete demolition of his future…or girlfriend flambé. It was a stupid question from either angle.
Wait. Now she’s the girlfriend?Adrian grimaced and then blanked his features again before the Oracle detected it.
“You’ve passed the age of your ancestors. You’ve made it this far without provoking your curse.”
“Because I was careful.”
“’Cause I helped you.”
Adrian folded his arms over his chest. “I could argue that one all day.”
The Oracle arched a sandy brow in challenge. “Would you like to hear what’s ahead of you, Adrian? Would you like to hear the tragedy that befalls your one true love, should you fuck this up? How she dies? How lost you feel?
“How would you like to know every moment of every day how you will lose her and not be able to do a damn thing about it? To act against prophecy will seal her fate.”
Adrian tossed the wrinkled bills at the counter. “She’s not for sale.”
The Oracle’s voice lightened. His face changed to insidious delight. He stretched his chubby arms out wide. “Of course she’s not. That money’s not for her. It’s for you. I already knew howyou’dreact.”
“Go buy yourself something nice to wear tonight. And let me be the first to welcome you back to O’Nightingale’s.” The Oracle angled his head to Adrian’s fist, where syrupy liquid oozed between his clenched fingers. “Oh, and uh, keep the lube. You’re going to need it.”
Shauna swallowed the gasp of fear that seized her throat.
Jutting three feet from the treacherous threat of a clean-swept gutter, and well into the natural flow of traffic, sat Richard’s Chinese-red Bentley convertible. Even under the scant light post it gleamed, the lower fender curved in a smile of privilege and self-assurance. As if to say, “Go ahead. Try to outrun me.”
Shauna’s gaze fled to the clutter-stacked bunker of her garage then to the remote clipped on her sun visor. What she wouldn’t give for a working garage door about now. She’d lower it behind her before he could leave his car and take one step in her direction. Giving her a moment to think.
He always kept her on a stopwatch. With her shift having ended several hours ago, that left lots of explaining to do.
Richard’s catapult of accusations came fully loaded and ever ready. The moment he spotted her—oh God,andthe outfit—no doubt he’d open fire. And he wouldn’t stop until he brought tears.
She needed an excuse—a plan—and something good this time. She came up with a dozen of them when she got dressed this evening, but all the good ideas fled her mind about as quickly as Adrian and his turbo-boosted better things to do.
Shauna careened into the driveway, as her cashmere sweater grew itchy and constrictive. The tiny, woven threads seemed to sprout serrated insect legs that chased up her spine. Caught. And she knew it.
She couldn’t muster the guts to look at Richard and his ego-stroker-on-wheels. Not yet.
She steered straight into the garage.Eyes stuck on the dingy tennis ball that hung in wait to tap her windshield and declare her home free.Shauna pushed out a bitter huff. No freedom for her. Not anymore.
Come on, think.
A sick coworker could explain the late hour, maybe she had to cover their shift—in disguise, so her friend wouldn’t get fired.
Orshe could be flaunting the outfit just for Richard. Maybe she’d planned this. She’d been expecting him?
Yeah, like he’d believe that. She let her foreheadthunkagainst the steering wheel. Why did encouraging her own fiancé’s sexual intrigue feel like the very last thing she wanted?
Because then she’d have to spend the entire evening warding him off. That’s why.
She clicked the remote button. It hadn’t worked in months, but once. Please, just one more time. Shauna jammed the button down, harder this time. The tiny, green light on the remote flickered, but the door didn’t budge from its propped state.
She risked a quick glance to Richard’s car.
Wait a sec. The car wasn’t idling. The driver’s seat looked vacant.
She craned her neck to the view behind her. Her gaze flew to the dark carport, the prickly bushes that lined the drive, even the slender pole that caddied half-a-dozen birdfeeders—anywhere but inside. Please don’t be inside.
She jammed on the emergency brake and shoved open the door. If her roommate, Kimmy, got a hold of him, no telling what kind of damage she’d do.
Shauna launched herself from the driver’s seat and bypassed the attached door to the garage. She started for the front entrance. Rounded the four-foot, brick alcove that blocked her view of the front door. Her heels skittered on cement as she made an abrupt stop.
Richard, in his crisp, black tuxedo, stood hunched over the doorbell—too busy woodpeckering the button to notice her clipped approach.
The faint, honey-rasp of Kimmy’s voice came from the other side. “That’s it. I warned you—”
Richard leaned toward the door’s crevice. “And I’m warning you, Kim. This is my house, not yours.”
He paused for a moment as if waiting for Kimmy’s retort. But nothing came. Odd. Not really her style. The roommate never backed down from a verbal assault. And if the fight happened to cross into her lair? Shauna would place her money on Kimmy any day.
Richard pounded the rough, wooden surface with his fist. “Open this door!”
Ah, the moment Shauna had been waiting for—or dreading, really. A year ago, their house had fallen into bankruptcy, and Richard offered to buy it. Not sure why he considered it his so-called perfect picture of domestic life, but finding a buyer had saved her bacon.
So she went with it.
He promised it wouldn’t get creepy.
Maybe Richard hadn’t noticed, but he’d just pole vaulted over the creep boundary like a champ. She’d picked a winner all right. Now to slip that gold metal over his head. And hang him with it.
Shauna folded her arms. “What are you doing?”
Richard pivoted slowly. His frown of determination intensified, and his lowered brows knitted with outrage.
The sudden sputter and hiss that came from behind Shauna overpowered Richard’s sharp reply. She spun as the first round of sprinklers hissed to life, and erupted into a cheerful rotation of water spurts. Right into the open bay of Richard’s car.
Richard’s face paled. His hands rested in a ghost of a touch on her arms as he sidestepped her and raced to his car. “Damn it. I just had this washed.” He jumped into the driver’s seat and leaned to one side with his shoulders drawn up and his eyes squinted, as if to shield from the pelting water. The engine roared and Richard U-turned on spinning tires.
Shauna raced back for the garage, to where the sprinkler’s time clock sat. She rounded the corner in time to catch Kimmy’s self-righteous grin as she slapped the box shut and clomped for the attached door in her four-inch heels. “Sorry, Shauna. Had to be done.”
There’s the Kimmy she knew. “Thanks a lot.” Shauna marched to the box and shut off the sprinkler assault.
She hoped Richard would continue down the road. But the screech of his brakes ended that in a hurry. She pulled in a deep breath. Maybe she should have left the sprinklers on.
From the other side of the street, Richard popped back out of the car. He had one of those yellow, baby-buffer cloths and he wiped the glistening surface with quick, agitated strokes. He shot a brief glare in Shauna’s direction. “You could at least lend a hand…Is this hard water?”
Shauna ambled toward the street. She lifted her hand, pretending to inspect her manicure. “Sounds like you’re blaming me for this?”
He gestured to the house with the wadded cloth. “She’s your roommate. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked you to get rid of her.” He returned his attention to the car. “There’s another towel in the glove box.”
“Good.” It could stay there. Shauna pivoted. She hadn’t checked the mail in over a week, but she couldn’t think of a better time. If the mailbox just happened to suck her into another universe, the paper cuts would be worth it.
Richard’s tone remained clipped. “Where’s the costume I bought you?”
Shauna frowned. Wasn’t this supposed to be about him? One balloon of a chance to take the attention off her and it already popped.
“In my closet, why?” The answer came to her just as the words slipped out of her mouth.
“Do you really think the one you’re wearing is appropriate? It’s a charity event. Just because it’s a masquerade, doesn’t mean people won’t know who we are.”
That’s right. Halloween would hit in four days. There was the golden excuse. Not that she really cared for one at this point.
The mailbox lid opened with a metalscreechfollowed by aclangas it hit its supportive post. She reached for the mass of papers and envelopes crammed inside.
“I hope you’ll consider changing before we go?”
That didn’t sound like a question at all—or a polite request. She funneled the bundle of papers into her arms. “We’re already late, and it’s been a long day. I’m not sure I’m up to—”
“I just don’t understand. If you already have a perfect costume, why would you come up withthat?”
“Oh, I forgot about the party.” The air of challenge that invaded her voice seemed to come out of nowhere. From someone else. Pretty sure, her name used to be Shauna.
Richard crossed the street with agitated steps. “How can you forget if you’re dressed up?” His voice elevated. “Did you wear that to work?”
She flipped through the letters. “Yep…Work function. I didn’t want to get the other one dirty, and this was more playful anyway.”Oh. Good job. Way to work that spine.
Richard paused. “Just howplayfulwere you planning to get—and what is this?” He snatched a small postcard from her bundle, studied it, and then tossed it back into her arms.
Shauna gave him a blank look.
His voice hardened. He shot her a curled-lip look of disgust, and nodded to the card again. “What is that?”
Her gaze followed the glossy, black postcard as it landed. “It’s mail.” She raised her brows. “My. Mail.”
“Honestly, sometimes I don’t even know you.” He looked pointedly to the double knot tied in her coat, as if he expected her to not have a stich of clothes underneath.
She had a sweater. Anitchysweater—one he bought, by the way—and it seemed to get uglier and itchier by the second.
“I don’t even know what you’re supposed to be.” He stepped closer as if to shield her from view. His voice lowered. “I don’t think you should be wearing that outside the house. In fact, you know what? Leave the mail. You can get it tomorrow.”
She motioned to her armload of papers. “But I’m already here.”
“Exactly. Where all the neighbors can see you.”
She gave him an incredulous look.
He snagged her elbow and tugged her toward the door. “Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing you like this—”
Was that supposed to sound genuine?
“I just don’t want to share it with the whole world.”
She yanked her elbow free. “My thoughts exactly. So why don’t you go on without me?”
“That’s not an option.” He put his arms around her shoulder this time and urged her toward the door. “But if you really want to stay in tonight, I’d be perfectly happy to keep you company.” He nodded. “With the wedding looming, I think we may need to practice for those momentous traditions. The kiss, the garter, maybe even the wedding night?”
A cold ladle dipped into the pit of her stomach. Why did this escort suddenly feel like a serial killer ushering her into his basement?
Oh, I remember.
At the beginning of their relationship, Richard had the patience of a saint. A phenomenal snuggle buddy. He didn’t cause the reaction most men did.
Oh, she warmed a bit, but nothing noticeable. The reaction seemed mild enough that she even entertained thoughts of a normal life. Aperfect life, as Richard would say. One picket fence, two beautiful children, and a dog with a jewel-encrusted collar.
So it wasn’t exactly love. More of an unspoken, mutual agreement for obtaining the American dream. He would have every excuse to bail out on high-society obligations, and she could finally live in her own dollhouse.
But the closer to the wedding—or wedding night—they got, the more intense her reaction had grown. And the more possessive Richard had become.
His plans weren’t moving fast enough, and apparently, he didn’t want that pretty little collar to get cold, so he’d fastened it on Shauna.
And the leash? Suffocatingly short.
She pulled away and gestured to the front window where the flicker of the television light shifted from blue to white and the curtain swung from its sudden release.
“Kimmy’s here. I doubt she’d feel comfortable—”
He gestured to the house with an impatient hand. “She’s always here. She’s a damn shut-in. And the reason why you have a bedroom door. We both agreed waiting for the wedding night was a cliché. How do I know our relationship is ready for a new level, if we don’t test our compatibility?”
Shauna paused. Sound reasoning. Now to find a way around it.
“You already know I’m going to marry you,” he continued. “I agreed to that. You have your ring. What have you got to lose?”
Shauna curled her fingers under the pile of mail.
He pulled her in close and rested his forehead on hers. “Putting me off means putting off your family. Your future.” His tone flattened. “You do realize this is how real babies are made, right?”
Low blow. Shauna clenched her jaw shut.
Hyper ovulation-induced menopause, they called it. Her eggs were on the slip-n-slide to certain demise. He knew children were always a concern, especially because she couldn’t afford to store or inseminate her own eggs. Lending her the money seemed preposterous in his eyes, which to some degree, she accepted. They were to be married soon, after all.
Shauna zeroed in on the narrow points of his upper lip, hoping they wouldn’t come closer and prayed that she wouldn’t have to push him away again.
“Are you worried about your experience level?” he asked.
“No.” She looked away. “Well, maybe.” How could she pass up an excuse like that? Way better than being afraid of turning your fiancé into a French fry. The experience level, she could handle. She wasn’t a virgin. Not that he needed to know.
She’d had plenty of time to conjure up what having sex again would feel like. She might be a little out of practice, but she wasn’t immune to Google, or Youtube, or Redtube for that matter. But lately, her refined fantasy of writhing muscle and heat had nothing to do with Richard. It’s a good thing the warmth in her cheeks couldn’t spell out whose name those thoughts really belonged to.
“Because it doesn’t matter. I’ll show you. I’ll tell you what I want.” He hooked one finger in the lining of her coat.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.” She offered what she hoped was an apologetic grimace and slid closer to the door.
Richard moved to cut her off her path. “Maybe if you’d spend some time with me, you can come to terms with what’s expected of you before the big night.”
Her vision narrowed to menacing slits. “What’sexpectedof me? Did you really just say that?” Shauna turned on her heel and marched towards the door.
“Well, obviously when it comes to sex, you don’t want any part of it, but I’m not the kind that goes without. So how else would you like me to word it?”
“I think you’ve worded itperfectly.” Throwing his favorite word back at him didn’t feel like enough. She reached for the door handle. Maybe she could fling it open hard enough to ram him in the nuts. Or plan B, a door-slamming penis guillotine.
Richard’s voice hardened. “I don’t mean to come off as an asshole or anything, but for God sakes, Shauna, I’m putting my foot down. A man has needs.”
“And a woman doesn’t?”
He splayed his arms out wide, and his brows lifted in innocence. “I’m right here. If you need something, let me give it to you.” Richard shot a quick glance around as if afraid the shrubs were taking notes. He lowered his voice again. “Unless it’s not me you want.”
“No. It’s not that.”Oh, yes. Yes, it was.Shauna jammed her key in the door and turned the knob.
Richard expelled a frustrated sigh behind her. “Look, I’m getting tired of waiting. You’re going to have to prove to me that I’m not committing to a life of celibacy. Because I’m not up for that.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to do that.”
“Well then, you know what’s expected of you. There. We’ve come full circle.” He gestured inside. “Now that we understand each other, what do ya say we go in? Kiss and make up.”
“Why don’t you stay out and kiss my ass instead.” She solidified her statement by slamming the door in his face.
“Not appropriate, Shauna,” he called from the other side. His voice muffled through the thick wood. “You’re not yourself tonight.” He paused. “I’m going to give you some time to cool off and get dressed. I’ll be back in an hour. “
“You know what? Don’t bother!”
He paused. “So…so it’s over then?” More of a challenge than a question.
Shauna opened her mouth to speak, but no words would form. Could all of this end so easily? A relationship of this length should take at least a few more sturdy shoves before it completely toppled over. Shouldn’t it?
His agitated steps quieted away.
Shauna pulled in a tight breath when she heard his car door open, then snap shut.
What had she done?
His engine started.
Her pulse hammered. What if she’d just made a terrible mistake? He had been the only man who wanted her. He stayed with her all this time. Now she’d refused him. Richard was right; she wasn’t herself. Something had gotten into her. Or someone…
She pressed her forehead to the door, but refused the strength to lift her hand to the knob. She listened to the roar of Richard’s engine until it grew soft and faded into nothing.
Shauna trudged for the closet with her head down, hating every matted-shag step. She could fix this. A little holy water and a priest would be great about now. So she could exorcise the spoiled brat who had taken over her body. No, she couldn’t have what she wanted. She couldn’t have Adrian. So get over it. Settle for the logical option and be happy with it. Reality. The safe decision.
“What you got there?”
Kimmy unloaded the mail from her arms and tore through it faster than a zombie after Einstein. “Junk. Bill. More bills.”
Funny, such a ravenous appetite for the outside world, but all she had to do was take a few steps beyond the front door. Then again, at least Kimmy had control over her world. Complete control.
“How’d your date go?” Shauna asked.
The discarded mail slapped on the table. Kimmy’s mouth turned down in a noncommittal frown. “Meh.”
Shauna shrugged out of the coat and offered it back to its rightful owner. “What do you mean? I thought this one was totally sexy.”
Her painted eyes widened. “He is. He’s a hot body builder with muscles to spare, but when it comes to the bedroom—his wrinkled pinky isn’t much of a Kimmy-pleaser.”
“Really? On your first date?”
Kimmy expelled a teenage-worthy sigh of frustration and gestured airline-attendant style to the far end of the house. “It’s hard not to take things to the next level when the bedroom is right there.”
Shauna widened her eyes in disbelief and shook her head. “Lock your door ahead of time.”
Kimmy’s knees gave. She crumpled halfway to the floor in a dramatic wave before catching herself. “I can’t. I have no willpower.”
Okay, control over everything except the spreading of her thighs.
Kimmy’s gaze lowered to the coat. “Did you steam clean this?” She seemed to weigh it with a floating motion of her hand, and then dug through the pocket. She gave Shauna a flat look and revealed palm-sized rock. She snorted. “You know, you really need a Taser if you want to keep Richard away. Throwing a stone requires space. He’s too suffocating for that.”
Shauna closed her eyes. “How did you know?”
“I know all, remember.”
Shauna looked skyward. Self-proclaimed psychic. How could she forget?
She reached their shared closet space and pulled out the sleek, black dress. The hem looked short. Too short. The neckline formed a deep V that showcased an ample amount of both breasts. She slipped the dress over her head. Her jaw hinged open. Ample. What an understatement. Danger: explosive side-boob, would be more accurate.
Kimmy’s voice muffled with the sound of crinkling plastic. “You’re missing the under-thingy.” Kimmy sauntered into the shared space with one of Adrian’s chocolates caught between her teeth. She set the hangers to clattering as she pulled out a long-sleeved, black-lace undershirt. She tossed it onto the bed and then plucked the dress from around Shauna’s neck. “Oh, sorry, and that’s mine.” She pushed a consolation chocolate into Shauna’s hand. “Richard bought you…” She turned back for the closet and the rattle of hangers ensued. ”This one.” Kimmy returned with a triumphant smile and a God-awful, neck to ankle, polyester nightmare. “Going for the nunnery-chic look, I see.”
Shauna’s shoulders dropped in their sockets. “No wonder I didn’t recognize it. Richard would never buy something that dramatic.”
“You mean sexy?” Kimmy shrugged. “So your boyfriend has a taste for funeral wear. I guess that could be kinky in some really hard-to-get-my-head-around way.” She blinked heavenward. “Maybe if it weren’t Richard, it’d be more plausible.”
Shauna’s tone deflated. “Wanna trade?”
Kimmy grinned with pent excitement. “You’d seriously wear my dress? Take a leap to the other side?”
“Not with Richard. I’m not going.” She still wanted Adrian. And tonight. If only for one night, she would wallow in that—and a slut-sexy, black dress.
And hell, maybe some vodka too.
She twisted both sides of the plastic wrap until the chocolate dropped into her mouth. From the weight, she expected jawbreaker consistency, but the moment the nutty warmth rolled across her tongue, it melted. Tiny granules of sugar slid down her throat to warm her stomach.
Shauna squeezed her legs together and clenched her muscles against the yearning ache that tugged at her core. The heat of her arousal had been pulsing a steady beat since the moment Adrian had given herthat look. History proved she wouldn’t be much use to the world until she got at least one good, hard orgasm under her belt. She looked away. “I’m going to need some seriousmetime.”
“Oh, no, no, no. If you wear it, you’re not staying here. This dress is meant to be seen. I know just the place.” Kimmy tossed the dark card that she’d unearthed from the mail pile. A coy smile curved her lips.
“Ugh—I’m not in the mood to goanywhere,” Shauna groaned.
“Hey, when you’re happy—and I meanreallyhappy—I’m happy, so let’s make that happen, hummm?”
The card frizbee’d across the room to land on Shauna’s nose. She lifted the stiff paper until the words focused. The same card that had Richard acting all defensive.
But not just that; she’d seen it before somewhere. In her past, or…
Oh boy. On Adrian’s desk next to the chocolates. She remembered seeing a bunch of them, but they all looked so personal. Each one individually addressed. Why would she get one?
Elegant scrollwork of neon purple and green framed the handwritten card with a single message.
Shauna trudged along the sidewalks pocked with disks of petrified gum and rain puddles as she made her way to O’Nightingale’s. Her legs weighted heavily by the lateness of the hour and the emotional landfill that had become her night. Not to mention the snug fit of Kimmy’s patent leather boots. She pulled another candy from her pocket and twisted the wrapper. The metallic foil squealed in protest.
Richard was probably off somewhere, still shaking his head.
From blushing bride to bitchzilla in a matter of seconds.
Shauna grimaced and flung the thought from her head. She didn’t need guilt. She needed…more chocolate. She dug the candy from its protective foil, earning yet another squeal before crumpling the wrapper in her fist.
Richard deserved what he got tonight; the frustrations had been building up oversome time. Sure, a little essence O’Adrian might have loosened her cynical corset, but that would have come undone eventually. Better now than after the wedding. Better to know what they were both getting into—or getting out of. Because at this hour, a mad dash for the border sounded a lot better than the altar.
She popped the globe of chocolate in her mouth and chomped down. No, not even Mexico sounded far or fast enough.
She took a cleansing breath between chews. Her lungs infused with the scent of damp cement and chocolate. This time, Shauna welcomed the warmth that splashed into her stomach and the fuzz that danced with her thoughts. If she didn’t know Adrian, she’d say these things were laced with something stronger than cocoa. Good, but it wasn’t enough. She needed an escape of mammoth proportions. Another world entirely.
Something just scary enough to reset her perspective.
According to Kimmy, O’Nightingale’s would be her quickest and dirtiest fix possible.
“A wish alone will not change your fate, but a decision will change everything. Better to move than be cursed forever,”Kimmy had declared with an uplifted hand.
Quick fixes were okay.
Dirty ones? Shauna tilted her head. On a night like this, she could agree to a little dirty.
But what’s with the mighty wallop of glittery, mystical stupidity? Why had she agreed to that? Kimmy’s higher-being psychobabble couldn’t be trusted. Under most circumstances, it was a good indication for an about-turn and sprint in the other direction. Shauna didn’t mess with fate.
But when Kimmy threw the wordcurseinto the ring…
Ding. Ding. Ding! The fight was over.
Shauna had already been cursed a-plenty. No other word could move her into trouble’s path more quickly.
Except maybe “Adrian.” That word caused all kinds of trouble. Like the warmth of excitement funneling to her core. And the tight ache in her chest that had nothing to do with the push-up effect of her outfit. She knew the source of it and the more pervasive reason that she’d shed her usual reluctance for anything her promiscuous roommate suggested. Shauna needed a fix on multiple levels.
Kimmy’s ideas weren’t always this brilliant, but she couldn’t pass this one up.
It’s not as if underground nightclubs were infesting the state of Utah. The odds of a man as single and secluded as Adrian going anywhere else to blow off steam were zero to not happening.
Kimmy had mentioned that the cards were a one-time use. No turning back. Given the number of invitations strewn across Adrian’s desk, the man came often enough to build a skyscraper house of cards.
Adrian had revealed something else tonight. He’dnoticedher. Not only noticed, he’drecognizedher. The same who-let-you-out-of-the-house-in-that look from years past had changed a bit. It stung less. More like a sharp slap on the ass now, and to Shauna’s surprise, she kinda liked pissing him off.
He had unleashed the bratty demon within her; now he could deal with it. If he did show, and he happened to see her again…She glanced at the black trench coat wrapped tight around Kimmy’s thigh-high dress and the scant light gleaming off her boots. She grinned. She’d bet every ball-bearing treat in that damn jar that he couldn’t look away this time.
A little extra dig to settle the score would for sure make her night. After all, Shauna had been invited. Someone else wanted her here. And it wasn’t Adrian. How chocolate-coated awesome would that be to rub in his face?
Some foreign grain of protectiveness—or was it territorial—who knew, but something deep inside Adrian loomed to the surface every time Shauna stirred up trouble in his presence. Like with the chocolate, it really got to him. In an instant of recognition, the docile gorilla stood ready to assert his dominance and straighten out this troublesome neighbor-monkey.
She lifted her chin a notch higher and quickened her pace as she crossed the vacant street into the historic district. If that’s what worked, she’d take it.
She had to.
All other options for a cure dead-ended with Adrian Sands. If he wouldn’t help her out of kindness, her next option had to be the one thing she knew. Putting herself in danger got his attention—bratty and selfish as it was. She’d hate herself for it in the morning, but for now, she could manage a little wardrobe-tantrum at his expense.
Her attention turned to a slender, Victorian-style building on the corner. The darkness under the scalloped awning seemed to tunnel into nowhere. She tried to focus in, but still couldn’t detect even a single body.
The three-block distance from the nearest parking lot must have been deliberate. Not to mention the odd destination time. It made sense. Better to stagger the crowd and move them in quick than to cause a scene in the open.
The streetlight had been dimmed. Nothing like Shauna’s handy work—not broken, but diminished somehow to a scant ember of light. Just functional enough to avoid repairs but pretty darn useless. The interior lights of the building shed the same glow. To the common passer-by, it looked tucked away for the night. She squinted to the card, then to the sign fixed to the weathered hobby shop.
Grigori Bird Watching.
The nightingale silhouette on the sign matched, but the place seemed more welcoming to cane-toting retirees than the fetish-hungry elite Kimmy had mentioned. What about this place had caught Adrian’s eye? Why did he keep coming back here night after night?
Only two stores down on the close-packed street was the same ice cream shop she and her grandpop visited every summer. The windows were dark, but the place probably doled out the same double scoop of strawberry ice cream as always.
In the daylight, anyway.
Shauna lurched forward and spun around to find Squalinski looming close behind, from the dark shadow of a building overhang.
“You scared the shit out of me!”
His lips twitched with a smug grin. “Well, if it isn’t our little streetwalker, out for a stroll.”
“Funny.” Her gaze narrowed. “But I didn’t think your pudgy little legs would make it this far.”
Squalinski rocked back on his heels. “Yeah, thought you lost me after you went home, but you didn’t…did you?” He turned his attention to the bird shop across the street. “Word has it, this place makes all kinds of calls after dark.”
“Is that so?”
“Never been there myself. Your first time, too? How fortunate.”
She smirked. “Closed party. You’re not invited. Look, I’m not doing anything illegal. Soyoucan’t bother me.”
“Public intoxication is illegal.” Squalinski’s pen light snapped on and he waved the bright beacon in her face. “How much you had to drink tonight?”
“Really. Because your eyes are telling me something different.” He angled his head. “Follow this light please.”
“Nice try.” Shauna marched forward. “You know, this game is getting old. And you still haven’t figured out how it’s played. You don’t have anything on me.Youcan’t touch me.” She looked both ways, ready to cross the street. “Rumors of an abductionherewould be bad for business. And something tells me, the guys in there? They don’t like cops hanging around their establishment anyway. So maybe you better step aside before you blow your own cover.”
She took two marching steps into the crosswalk. Then three. Four. Her nerve endings tingled with high alert for the moment the agent would charge from behind and grab her.
But nothing came.
Had she been right? The bluff paid off?
A hurried clip of spiked heels carried her forward as she chanced a quick look behind.
Gone? Not exactly, still skulking in the shadows, but the slime ball didn’t venture a step into the open. From what she said? Or because of her destination?
A sporadic shift near the hobby shop snared Shauna’s attention. Panic vised her heart. Several dark figures in the entryway ballooned to one side, then the other before settling into some sort of queue. She paused. Five? Twenty? She couldn’t determine how many were there, but one thing was certain, this had to be the place.
Shauna started forward again with tentative steps. She eyed the shapeless ripple as it parted again and the shop’s door swung open. She half-expected the pleasant jingle of entry bells above the door, the kind that plagued every Maw-and-Paw shop on this street.
But no. Not a sound.
A violet-blue light from within, arched into the entry, and then snuffed-out by a surge of eager bodies.
Her mind whirred to catch every detail as the darkness filled in. One, two…six. Pretty sure there were at least six heads. She expected some music, maybe a collective moan of disappointment from those who didn’t get in. Anything but this intimidating silence.
As she neared the crowd, the closer outliers appeared to turn in her direction. Even the air around them seemed to pause in watchful curiosity. The hammering in her chest battled to overpower the steady pace of her clipping heels. She tried to quiet her approach with tiptoe steps. More of a courtesy really, it’s not as though the entire place hadn’t already seen her coming.
Perfume and the sharp tang of leather wafted from the building. Shauna clutched the phone in her pocket. Could she reach someone in time if she got in trouble here? With a following this tight? The image of scurrying shadows and grabbing hands flashed through her mind. They’d have her surrounded and silenced before she ever hit send.
A sudden spasm of fear shot through her. Inside the trench coat pocket, warm vibrations danced against her hand. It took a moment to register the phone’s sensation. She wasn’t used to putting the thing on silent. But again, Kimmy insisted.
Shauna kept marching as she pressed the phone to her ear, and used her other hand to shield its offensive glow.
“Hello?” she whispered.
Kimmy’s voice projected through the phone. “You there already? ’Cause if you get caught with your phone, they’ll take it.”
Shauna turned from the crowd and cupped the lower end of the phone, hoping to dampen the sound. “You couldn’t have told me sooner?”
Shauna could just picture the careless brush of Kimmy’s hand. “It’s no biggie. Once you’re in, I’ll have you on webcam. If you feel a vibe in your pocket, get out. If anyone asks, you’re from the Seattle group. Oh, and one more thing. I think the safe word is still ‘button nose’ so if you get into trouble, work that into the conversation and you’ll be left alone.”
Shauna’s attention flew to the eaves of the building and the corners of the upper floor window. “Safe word? You’re kidding, right? And you’re watching this whole thing?”
“Well…Yeah.” Her tone smoothed with haughty assurance. “It’s more fun watching you. As a member of Nightingale’s soaring high club, it’s old hat for me.”
“Soaring high club?”
“Well,” Kimmy scoffed. “Of course that was years ago.”
“Gee, glad I could be of service. Since when did I become your cheap entertainment?”
“Since…always. Now get in there and give me video feed. I need to feed!”
On any normal day, Shauna would tell her to go fly a kite but at present…hell, why not? Let Kimmy take in the show. She didn’t care. Shauna didn’t have a care in the world. Something about tonight blanketed her in a perfect concoction of blissful indifference. “If you want to feed that bad, maybe you should soar your lazy butt down here yourself? What happened to you anyway? Why is it that I’mhere, and you’rethere?”
A pause of unsettling silence stretched through the phone.
Apparently, that blissful indifference came with a splash of saucy-bitch and a mouth that couldn’t quit. This is what the world got when a sex-deprived Shauna went on parade.
“I know you’re stressed—” Kimmy began.
“Stressed?” Was she supposed to be stressed?
“Maybe a little nervous,” Kimmy corrected.
Shauna looked skyward in contemplation. Nope. Not that either. Not anymore. But she could have sworn that only a moment ago…
Kimmy’s words picked up speed. “There’s nothing to worry about. Promise. You’re going to have fun. What’s the worst that can happen?”
The worst? The entire building going up in flames—with her in it. Not to mention how many others she’d take down with her. Why didn’t that bother her all of the sudden? Tonight, it felt more like a great chance to roast marshmallows. Or s’mores. Shauna slid her tongue over the roof of her mouth to savor the tinge of chocolate that remained. She twisted to her pocket in search of another candy.
A scamper of heels over wood erupted at the building’s entrance. A disconcerted mumble of irritation came as the ripple of bodies shifted in all directions.
One woman’s voice carried over the rest. “If you think, after I comeallthis way—” Her words lost their clarity, smothered to muffled grunts of outrage as a large man shoved through the commotion. He hoisted the woman against his chest with one hand clamped tight over her mouth.
The buxom woman kicked and reared. Her occluded cries became longer and more urgent the closer they came to the street. The bouncer bobbed his head to the left once, then again, to avoid her flailing arms.
The glittery, head-to-toe spandex the woman wore looked ready to explode—what was left of it anyway. The strategic holes cut from the fabric stretched and thinned like melting Swiss as the woman continued her spasms. Her doughy flesh bulged through a large hole at her thigh. One patent-leather heel clattered to the cement. The bouncer took lumbering steps toward the curb, and a faint grunt sounded as one of the woman’s arms connected with his temple.
The bouncer stopped. He dropped the woman on her feet, and snatched her up again. One large arm banded her limbs down while the other clamped her mouth again, the woman’s movements reduced to little more than a writhing caterpillar in her hole-eaten chrysalis.
A white limousine loomed into focus beneath the streetlight, like a shark through murky water. The engine purred at a leisurely few miles per hour until it reached the struggling pair. The passenger door opened by unseen hands, and the bouncer tossed the woman inside.
The woman managed a few curses of indignation before the door snapped shut, and the vehicle puttered away again at the same pace.
Shauna readjusted the phone to her ear as Kimmy’s warning cut through. “Anonymity is everything here. Anyone seen dressing for attention outside won’t get past the gate. Keep your goods covered till you’re in. But for God’s sake, get in soon. You’re running out of time.”
“Right, then it’s all out and exposed. Got it. Anything else, puppet master?”
Shauna watched the bouncer stoop to retrieve the abandoned shoe and turn toward the building. Eyes forward and mechanical, he didn’t even glance her way. Probably paid not to.
Shauna’s phone buzzed against her ear.
“Don’t answer that,” Kimmy barked.
The urgency in Kimmy’s voice grew distant as Shauna held the phone away. “Don’t need to shout.” She frowned at the unlisted number bannered on the phone’s screen. “And the puppet thing was a joke. You can stop telling me what to do now.”
“It’s 11:02. Get moving.” A digital beep sounded, and Kimmy was gone.
Only the incessant vibrations of the incoming call remained.
She looked to the entrance as the door opened. It arched wider this time and more bodies filed in. The skulking shadows under the canopy diminished and her view of the bouncer’s vantage point became clear. Shauna had a feeling if she stayed on the street much longer, jabbering on her phone, she’d end up the next contender on The Quiet Ride Game.
She looked to the phone just as it went dark. The unlisted number vanished.
Just as well.
She slid the phone back into her coat pocket, but after just a few steps, the phone buzzed to life again.
Shauna pushed out a sigh of frustration. She couldn’t get past the bouncer like this. Couldn’t kill the phone either, it served as her only tether to the outside world. But with it dancing away in her pocket…she retrieved the phone once more and jabbed at the call with her index finger. “Go away. I’m busy.”
“Where are you?”
Her lungs seized. The odds told her it would be Richard. What were the chances she’d hear the potent depth of Adrian Sands instead?
Pretty darn good, apparently. Looked like Shauna won the lottery.
“Are you in trouble?” he demanded.
She could hear the manual shift of his car as Adrian accelerated. Probably racing off to another chemistry convention.
“Trouble? Why Adrian, you sound concerned. You really must have the wrong number.”
Wow. That saucy-bitch sauce has quite a kick.
“How did you get my number anyway?” Who was stalking whom here?
Shauna caught her breath the moment she recognized its hollow sound playing back through the phone.
Why wasn’t he talking? Could he beevaluatingher again? Shauna could picture that unnerving glare of his. The tiny creases that played near his eyes as he performed his microscopic calibration.
His tone remained even. Low, but even. “Your voice is slurred.”
“Clearly you’re outside.”
Yep, evaluating. She offered a congratulatory nod. “Excellent work, Sherlock.”
“So, where are you?”
Perfect opportunity to add a little “dummy” to the sauce. “Umm, I’m standing upright. Is that bad? Should I be on my back?” The giddy warmth of excitement had returned again. Oh, this was too much fun. Shauna could play this game all night. “Because I wouldn’t mind finding myself in that position right now.”
She’d had her doubts when she first arrived. Would her spine be strong enough to go through with it, or would she melt into a quivering puddle of cowardly muck?
Now she had her answer. She’d march in with a cast-iron spine and Adrian’s frown of disapproval fueling her pace.
Adrian’s words paused amid distraction. As if the numbers in his head, if only for a moment, didn’t compute. “Look. Sorry I couldn’t help you before. But you need to tell me where you are.”
“If you hadn’t kicked me out, I’d be with you. Maybe even…on my back.” Shauna waited for a response. “Legs spread…wet and achy….you know the drill.”
“Or maybe even wrapped around your waist? I guess it would have been your businessthen,” she continued. “But it’s not now.”
The accelerating roar of Adrian’s motor served as his only reply. Could it be? Did Shauna’s words actually have an impact on him? She didn’t bother to hold back the grin as she marched for the entrance. The mouth that wouldn’t quit was about to take a joy ride. She neared the entrance, and the bouncer motioned her to the front.
Shauna smiled in greeting to the pair of long-coated women. One frizzy head shook in disapproval, and then her attention fixed to Shauna’s phone.
Shauna’s mouth moved to silently frame the words “I know.” Her eye’s widened and rolled heavenward and she made a talking gesture with her other hand. “He won’t shut up!” It was a furtive ploy for sympathy.
Based on the synchronous scowl from the women, it didn’t work. They turned to each other with lips pursed in annoyance.
Shauna seized the momentary diversion and slipped ahead. She shrugged to a lanky man in a flannel shirt and windbreaker vest as she passed him too. Not an ounce of skin showing on anyone.
When Shauna approached, the bouncer frowned and held out one hand.
Shauna looked to the card in one hand, the phone in the other. No question. She handed him the card. He swiped it away and his hand jutted out again. “The phone too,” he growled.
Shauna held up one finger. A nice one, thank God. At this rate, she didn’t know who had control of this woman. Not Kimmy, Certainly not Adrian, and she had serious doubts about herself either.
The bouncer’s jaw tightened in irritation before turning away with her card.
Shauna returned her attention to the phone. “Besides, Adrian, you’ve already helped me out even more than you know.”
“Because I’m eating thechocolateI stole from you. It tastes really good.” Shauna moaned the last two words.
“You can’t have that here, ya know,” crowed one of long-coats. Which one, Shauna wasn’t sure. They still wore identical looks of disdain.
The frizzy-haired one turned to the bouncer. “What makes her so special?”
“Not a darn thing,” Shauna replied. She returned to the phone. “Look, I’ve got to go.”
The screech of tires tore through the fabric of silence on the street.
“What on earth?” The ornery women turned; their eyes wide with shock and Shauna long forgotten.
A sleek, cobalt-blue Camaro drifted sideways around the corner. It straightened with a jerk and raced straight for the front entrance.
Was that Adrian? Did those tires echo through the phone?
“It’s gonna ram us,” one woman squawked. She grabbed her friend, but neither of them moved apart from a few jittery hops of suspense.
The distant sound of Adrian’s voice came through the phone. “You’re teasing me with a little harmless chocolate?”
Shauna’s jaw fell slack. As the Camaro raced into focus, her mind whirred to measure every discernible detail behind the Camaro’s tinted windshield. It couldn’t be. The Adrian she knew probably drove a Volvo, a sedan of some sort. Not. That.
The silhouette of broad shoulders and close-cropped hair made her stomach leap for safety.
She cleared her throat to force the shakiness away. “It…It’s an aphrodisiac, you know.” Shauna had to keep him talking, just long enough to know for sure.
A sharp screech of brakes seemed to come right at her feet, and her blanket of fearlessness billowed around her. The crazed jitter-squirrel that hid beneath threatened to seize the opportunity and dive under the velvet rope, shove through the door, and lose him in the crowd.
The bouncer stood facing the nearby wall, his large hands still cradling her card. He nursed it back and forth, under a wall-mounted black light. A sloth could out-pace the guy. The attempted assault by vehicle didn’t seem to faze the bouncer, as if he’d seen it a million times. Shauna craned her neck to catch a glimpse of a faint inscription that glowed to life along the bottom edge of the paper, and inched closer to the door. Speed-reading. Not one of his strong points.
Shauna stole another glance behind.
Adrian’s left shoulder dipped, as he shoved open the car door.
“Shit,” Shauna peeped. The phone slipped from her hand as she made a panicked effort to end the call. She juggled the glossy plastic on its way to the ground. She managed to swipe it mere inches from crashing to the floor.
Shauna up-righted from her crouched stance inch-for-inch as Adrian unfolded himself from the car and straightened, only Adrian had several inches to spare—each one power and determination. His intense gaze of forewarning pierced through the handful of irritated patrons and hit her dead center.
He started forward.
Milliseconds ticking, Shauna spun back to the bouncer.
“Your phone?” It wasn’t a question.
“Billy,” Adrian called. A sharp jingle of metal sounded as Adrian tossed his keys to the bouncer.
Billy reached, and Shauna ducked under his arm. She finished-lined the velvet rope and the metal posts on either side crashed to the floor.
“Hey!” the frizzy one cried.
The bouncer rushed to quiet the toppling metal as Shauna stumbled over the clutter and body-slammed through the swinging door.
She blinked to take in her new surroundings and started moving.
No time to hesitate, but which way?
There’s no clear direction, no exit.
The store corralled her in each direction with countless card racks, shelves, and aged display cases. A landmine for broken hips in the daylight, for sure.
Her only greeter perched four feet above, in a haze of swirling dust and smoke. With wild, round eyes, the plastic owl looked about as startled as Shauna. But something much bigger hunted her.
Her focus darted from one wall to another as she picked her way deeper into the store. The stale warmth closed in as she wound from one aisle to the next. Each row stood about four and a half feet high. It wouldn’t take long for him to find her. Shauna’s ears tensed on the commotion behind, waiting for the firm plod of footsteps to cross the threshold and begin their pursuit.
Nothing looked odd, out of place, or even a slight sketchy. Where the hell was her portal to this so-called sexual underworld?
Her gaze caught on a mosaic of bird feeders, swings, and perches displayed on the far wall. She frowned. One seemed brighter than the others. Not in presentation or size, but something—yes, a nightingale. The same spread-winged profile from outside and her card had been stamped on the wall in glowing paint.
Shauna slipped her hand behind the dangling collection of wooden blocks and twine, and traced its outline looking for any hint of imperfection. There must be a secret button or switch. She pushed on the glowing stamp.
Smooth and cold as painted concrete.
The door she had come through flew open, accompanied by a chilled gust of autumn air. The entrance erupted. Splintering glass and clanging metal skittered across the floor as a nearby display of wind chimes toppled.
Shauna flinched and shrunk down to avoid being seen.
Billy muttered, “…damn son of a…” more growling than an audible words. Adrian’s deep reply interspersed the growling. “I’ll handle this.”
Something told Shauna he wasn’t talking about the mess either. He sounded unrushed and at complete ease. He would. This was his playground.
Adrian’s voice lowered beyond Shauna’s grasp. The reluctantscrape, scrapeof the bouncer’s clean-up attempt didn’t help. She could only imagine whatelseAdrian was saying to calm that raging bull.
I’ll handle it?
Oh no, not this time he wouldn’t. Adrian had his chance to handle it.
The handles were coming off.
She slapped her palm against the wall. The display trembled and clinked. She hit harder, and her palm stung.
Her cheeks heated with frustration. Stupid kindergarten knickknacks were getting the better of her. She lifted the offensive swing from its hook and her view of the stamp became clear. As well as the sharp arrow below that pointed to the east-side wall.
Seriously?She let the swing slip from her fingertips. It hit the floor with aclunk.
Shauna’s attention whirred east, and then she craned her neck forward and looked again. An illusion. The wall wasn’t complete. From any other position in the store, she would have overlooked it. The thin slice of false wall obstructed a dark hallway, just wide enough to shoulder through. Beyond that, the faint luster of a brass doorknob and the outline of another door.
She stole a look in his direction.
“You’re not going in there.” Two aisles over, Adrian squared himself to full attention. The logoed cotton T-shirt that met her earlier still clung to his chiseled pecs.
She swallowed. Someone should really turn the heat down on his drier. Or confiscate it.
As if on cue, those proud pecs twitched as Adrian folded his arms. Massive shoulders lifted in a what-gives sort of shrug.
A new form of heat flared in her cheeks. She’d seen Adrian’s recipe for challenge before. The higher her gaze traveled, the more potent it got.
The thick cords of muscle at his neck channeled upward to an iron-set jaw. She couldn’t look past the dusting of stubble. She couldn’t meet his eyes. Adrian already held enough of an edge to stay her.
On a normal day.
But Shauna moved again for the door.
What could he do? Nothing. He played here all the time. If he could do it, so could she.
In her tender, teenage years, his anger and disapproval would have thrown a proverbial bucket of ice over her spirit. But it was about time she outgrew him. No more spirit shushies for her.
She shot him what she hoped was her most impish grin and rushed for the hall. “Sorry, but I just can’t help myself.”
“Damn you,” he muttered. Determined steps marched through the store, and echoed between the narrowed walls.
Adrian was gaining but not fast enough. Bubbles of delight chased around in her stomach when she reached the door. She didn’t fight the urge to giggle as the knob turned with minimal effort, and Shauna rushed inside.
The door slammed and the steel cage surrounding her shuddered in response. There went the tiny, bat-like cry of what used to be her victory, as it flapped away in an irregular path.
She spun around; the clang of her heels echoed through the structure.
Please let it be an elevator, not a…whatever the heck else it might be. This wasn’t familiar territory, but not even Shauna could imagine this much security just for a broom closet.
Urgent sirens in her head blared,Doorknob. Doorknob.
Any second, it would turn. She’d be face-to-face with that party-pooping Poindexter.
Within arm’s reach on the right, a small, black box with two buttons stood out from the wall. She jabbed the lower button with her index finger. A buzzer sounded. Shauna’s attention caught a slight movement through the door, as a metallicclicksounded, and a bolt slid into place.
The cage bounced, then shook as it descended, but Shauna kept her gaze on that knob.
With the look on Adrian’s face, would a simple bolt prevent him from crashing through the door?
Of course it would. This was Adrian. Content, everything in moderation Adrian. Not the neighborhood idol from her youth.
The handle jerked, rattled. Then it stopped.
The even prattle of the elevator’s motor became the only sound.
She swallowed. Good…this is good. It would give her plenty of time to lose herself before the elevator returned for him.
And hope to God he doesn’t find the stairs.
The cage sprang, and another rattle ensued as the elevator lowered itself in front of another door. Shauna took a tight breath and turned the knob. She pushed the door a fraction. Relief.
No Adrian standing in the margin of space. She opened it wide.
Another hallway, this time ornate stone tile replaced cracked linoleum. Still, no Adrian.
She stepped out and looked to the buttery-yellow recessed lights. No sound, no sign of her self-appointed babysitter. She looked to the steel cage. It wasn’t returning for him.
Her steps slowed. What was this annoying ache in her chest? Not regret. Not disappointment. Couldn’t be.
What the heck was wrong with her? She reduced her pace to a careless amble.
Twin entry tables guarded both sides of the hall; each bolstered enormous iron lamps. Their shades, a dense skirt of blue and purple feathers that swayed to life in a tepid breeze.
Who knew it would be this painful to play the dumb female card? She’d used it to her advantage at work a few times, maybe to get out of a speeding ticket, but never to this extent. And hormones, for the love of God, get a hold of yourselves. This wasn’t about Adrian chasing her. It was about convincing him to give her what she wanted.
No!She shook her head. A cure.
The purpose—the real purpose, distilled down to one word. Naughty. And how much of it could she aimlessly wander into before Adrian’s good-neighbor morals came out, and he finally agreed to help her.
She couldn’t use him as her safety net. Not this far into the game.
That wouldn’t get her anywhere.
It might get her more chocolate, though. Shauna darted her tongue out to catch any remains of the stolen nuggets. She reached for her stash. Only one hard ball remained nestled in the pocket of empty wrappers.
Forget marriage and the picket fence. Sitting back and playing it safe all these years…and for what?
She squeezed the candy wrapper until the chocolate dropped into her open mouth.
Forget the normal sexual lifestyle too. Normal for Shauna had been nonexistent! And what’s normal about that? Maybe here, maybe this place could give her what she’d been missing.
The hint of trickling water seemed real from the glass fountains framed on either wall, but the cricket sound, and what she could only assume was a nightingale singing, must have been piped in.
Shauna stopped chewing.
Lurid, low-slung voices filtered through the background as she neared the end of the hall and turned a sharp corner.
“Good times with that one,” one gruff, female voice noted.
A male responded after a brief pause, as though taking a drag from a cigarette. “I’ll bet.”
“You should try her.” The female prodded. “Like a warm apricot—swear to God.”
“Really. Is that right?” Another pause. “Who could pass that up?” the man asked.
Shauna tried not to make eye contact with the booth nearest her as she descended the iron-grate steps, but her curiosity couldn’t let go. How quick could Shauna blend in a place this unfamiliar? What were these people like?
She knew what Adrian would do. He’d own this place. Her best bet would be to own it too.
The eggplant-purple walls grew further apart with each step, and the bottom of the staircase brought her completely into the open.
The sound of rubbing leather caught Shauna’s attention near her left. This time her attention caught and held. The silhouette of a slender man—probably the owner of the male voice, slid to the edge of a rounded booth, and stood.
Shauna blinked to adjust her vision from warm halos to shadows and glowing neon.
The man escorted a curvy woman to her feet then angled his head for an older woman to join them.
The trio paraded through a room dappled with white leather furniture and oversized ottomans. Their proud gazes seemed to scour the darkened perimeter as if asking for an unseen crowd to gather in.
Alcoves along the far wall were fitted with king-sized mattresses and mirrored headboards. Tight fitted sheets glowed pink and blue against neon lights.
And a bar—thank God! The shell-shaped counter seemed pretty purposeful. Not familiar but at least recognizable. As for the rest of the place…call it a vacation spa of sorts. That sounded safe. Shauna offered a reasonable nod. Asleazyspa, but still, she could own a spa, no problem.
She took a deep breath and stretched her arms out to the new walls and shelves that boasted rolled towels and colorful knick-knacks.
Her thoughts played in soothing, singsong. What a great place for releasing tension and inhibitions and promoting nothing but good feelings.
She wound a path through the collection of booths as her gaze bounced from one surprise to the next.
The lit dance floor seemed strangely unoccupied for the number of people filing into this place. She expected a crowded room where she could blend in somehow. Not happening. The place seemed ten times the size of the store overhead.
She would have preferred the pulsing beat of a normal dance club like the ones she’d seen on TV. Shauna’d stayed away from parties altogether since the frat disaster. But at least that one had music. Here, the urban heave-and-thump from the speaker system had been subdued. It drowned under the authoritarian clip of her heeled boots.
She spied plenty of intimate hidey-holes, but they were all occupied. Patrons clung to the corners and walls. Milky-blue flashes of light sprang to her attention like fireflies in summer.
Her confidence screeched to a halt.
Spa feeling gone.
That wasn’t light, more of a reflection, really. Pale skin, hidden from the harsh rays of sun and society, had now been fully exposed. It glanced off mirrors and loomed under the neon glow. And plethora didn’t begin to describe the amount of it.
Shauna’s throat stretched around a painful lump as she swallowed the chocolate whole.
Those are just massages. The special, happily ever after, maybe a bit vigorous, and kinda-invasive…
She turned to the nearest pillar in a weak attempt to avert her eyes, and the flush that threatened to turn her cheeks into bright red homing beacons.
The distraction worked, until she studied closer. Those “knickknacks” of sculpted glass and chrome weren’t just art, they were functional. Toys, tools, and devices…of the freaky kind. Everything had a price tag, and a big one. Some objects, like the nine-inch shafts, were pretty obvious. While others— Shauna tipped her head, trying to puzzle their use.
A well-dressed man slid into view from the other side of the pillar. “See anything you like?”
“No, but thanks.”
The man’s voice flowed smooth and as spiced molasses. “No need to thank me. I haven’t offered anything yet.”
Shauna changed direction, evading the suit and heading straight for the bar. Remember what Kimmy said. “These are normal acts of human curiosity and affection—”
Now she understood the disclosure. “—just give it a minute to sink in. This is a natural urge that everyone has. Some people are just more open to exploring. Some are more comfortable.”
This went far beyond normal exploration in Shauna’s book. The pole dancers, caged behind the bar, seemed more modest than the crowd they’d been hired to entertain.
Who was she kidding? This was no spa, no summer ice cream parlor. She looked at the occupants on her right. And that wasno ice cream cone.
Her gaze fled for the trio she’d crossed paths with. They seemed to know their way around. Maybe they were leaving. There had to be an exit on this level somewhere. It was fire code, right?
Shauna’s hope deflated. The trio hadn’t gone far. Center stage in the room, the curvy woman had perched herself on the raised inner portion of a circular sofa. She arched backward, her shoulders supported by the older lady—the gruff one, who reached forward and tugged the curvy woman’s shirt upward.
Probably to get a better look at the show below waist level.
Pretty sure there were laws against spreading legs that far apart while wearing a skirt. Surprisingly limber for someone her size.
The man knelt between her thighs and pushed them further apart with both hands. Shauna blinked.
Correction. No skirt.
Shauna whipped her attention away as the man dipped his head into the limber woman’s lap.
Shauna’s gaze hit the ground.Oh. My. Good-hell-someone-get-me-outta-here. She pivoted back in the direction she’d come. Her head swam, slower to catch up with the rest of her body.
That suit again.
Shauna managed one wobbling step in retreat before her path was blocked.
“Where you from?”
Shauna’s line of sight traveled from loafers to flashy-pink tie. She hoped the look of annoyance would connect, but gauging the man’s Mona Lisa smile, he wasn’t taking “buzz-off” for an answer. “From?” she demanded.
“Haven’t seen you around before.” The suited man gave her a favorable once-over as he rubbed his baby-smooth chin. “I’d remember you.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m from—uh, the Seattle group.”
“Seattle?” The man rocked back on his heels. “I’ve got some friends up there. The name’s Onyx.” He offered a soft handshake. “Sorry to disrupt your show. The Grand Master’s frolicking in the dungeon tonight, so I’m playing host. Can I take your coat?”
Shauna’s shoulders dropped in their sockets. This guy was a big deal? She shifted out of her coat and handed it over. The warmth of the coat’s silky lining slid from her arms.
“There. That’s better, isn’t it?”
Not really, Shauna hadn’t noticed the sewn in heaven feel of the coat until it left her. If she’d known, she never would have given it up. Probably would have spent the evening rolling around in the coat closet too.
He half turned his attention back to the trio. “Sorry I didn’t catch you when you first walked in. Awfully rude of me.”
She followed Onyx’s lead, turning back to the center of attention. “No worries,” she murmured.
Shauna stared straight ahead, willing herself to look through the people. The undulating movements of the man’s mouth. The dramatic arch on the woman’s back. The spasm of her thighs, and the way she rocked her hips at an urgent pace, as if to goad him on. And the noise—oh God,the noise. Shauna’s mind worked to bail out the images as fast as her eyes took them in.Spa, spa, spa.
It wasn’t working. The throbbing tempo that grew in force around Shauna’s lower half seemed to overpower her logic. The moisture that pooled in the confines of her panties seemed to welcome anything—anyone—that might relieve her infernal itch. And somehowthatwoman was getting whatShaunaneeded.
Her tongue slid over her cheery gloss-slicked upper lip, and Shauna chanced an angled glimpse at the man’s expert ministrations.
His tongue danced over the glistening folds of the woman’s outer seam. Wide flays from the full length of his tongue increased their tempo, as he moved upward from the lowest point of her genitals. A deliberate splay of his index and middle finger revealed the reddened inner folds of her most sensitive area. The tip of his tongue flexed sharp and quick as he speared between the swollen folds. Then the man settled into the upper crest of the woman’s clit.
The woman’s moans quickened to a feverish pitch of delight. One that played harmony with the mischievous anticipation tightening in Shauna’s chest. She shouldn’t be seeing this. But she couldn’t look away.
“That there’s Amanda. She’s pretty, isn’t she?” Onyx commented.
Shauna blinked. “Yeah, she’s something else.”
“We all are, darling.” He angled his head in thoughtful curiosity. “You top or bottom?”
She offered a careless flap her hand. “Oh, top. Definitely top.”
“Really.” He paused. “Just how long’ve you been a player?” His tone seemed disturbingly casual over the curvy woman’s accelerating moans.
“Not long.” She swallowed. “Not really very long at all.”
Onyx’s lips eased into that Mona Lisa smile again. Was he wearing lip-gloss too? “Come now, there’s no need to be modest here.”
“What do you mean, modest?” Was he talking about her clothes? He didn’t expect her to hand overmore,did he?
The man pointed a manicured finger to Shauna’s boots. “You’ve been in the game long enough to earn those.”
Shauna followed his gaze to the glossy, black leather and row of silver buckles that bound her legs from ankle to knee. Funny how those heels seemed to beam back at her with a power all their own. “Oh. Yeah.”
That damn Kimmy.
She offered what she hoped was a modest shrug. “I’m a quick learner.”
His rich, golden laughter bubbled through the room. “That’s wonderful.” He moved in close. The slight weight of his hand rested on her waist. Tingles rushed over her skin from the warmth of his palm and swarmed through her body.
Caught somewhere between that delicious feeling and the violation from her own body, Shauna’s chest heaved with what she hoped was an undetected gasp.
Onyx’s tone fell serious. Almost sensual. “I love the eager beavers. Tell me, who brought such a delightful present to our doorstep tonight?” His attention raked to the deep V-shape that framed her cleavage. “Or better yet…” The man planted a soft kiss on his fingertip and turned it toward Shauna. His path headed straight for the deepest part of her neckline. “Who befell the great misfortune of leaving you alone?”
Shauna’s voice sounded shaky and uncertain, even to her own ears. “I wouldn’t say he left so much as fell behind—” Her words cut off when Onyx’s fingertip made contact. Long, slender fingers—like Adrian’s—that could slide into her so easily. They could bathe in her moisture and massage away the unbearable ache from deep within.
A surge of fear busted Shauna free from the shiver that wracked her body. “He’ll be along shortly.”
Onyx’s arm fell to his side. His bottom lip lowered in a sympathetic pout. “Oh, I scared you. I’m sorry if it seems I’m grilling you. Forgive me. I’m just intrigued. Never have I met such a perfect treasure. The more answers I get, the more you delight me.”
“Thanks for that—I guess.”
Onyx shook his head. “There you go again, thanking me.”
“But like I said,” Shauna continued. “My—my littlebutton noseshould be along shortly.” There. She’d said it. The safe word was out, and now she would be left alone.
The man paused. His brows lifted in surprise. “Button—” he laughed. “Eager on so many levels, aren’t we?”
Shauna shifted from one foot to the other, not sure how to respond. Had she said that right? Had the word changed to something else? The questions dropped from her mind. Not that it mattered. Her mouth stopped functioning anyway. The moment Shauna glanced to the entrance, her entire body seized in a steel grip ofdeep do-do.
Adrian’s silhouette framed the entrance. He hadn’t moved yet. Watching or searching, she wasn’t sure which, but he was there. And Shauna’s can was about to be kicked.
The look of dread must have registered somewhere on her face because Onyx seemed to recognize it and followed her line of sight.
“Ahhhhh, playing a little cat and mouse, are we?” He craned his neck to scan the far corner of the room. Onyx paused. “Wait. Adrian? You top…with Adrian?” His chest bounced in a delicate snort. “Never took him for a bottom sort of guy.”
“He’s, uh…”He’s getting closer that’s what he is.“He’s both, actually.” Shauna blurted. She pivoted in front of Onyx, hoping to block Adrian’s view.
“Ha—Ha.” He shook an impish finger at Shauna. “Now I know why you like to watch so much.” He gestured to the trio. “I’ll bet that Adrian’s quite the spectacle to take in.”
Shauna tried to stammer a response, but Onyx was faster. “Come, let’s get you a drink, little mouse. And that button you’ve asked for.”
Shauna picked a stool on the far end that backed against a pillar. The polite conversation between the bartender and Onyx clouded from Shauna’s ears. Too busy tracking Adrian’s movements from the corner of her eye.
He’d spotted her, all right, passing one booth after another without a glance in either direction. One woman stood with her chest puffed up, bare breasts exposed, and her partner—ahem—partnerslong forgotten. She stood on her tippy-toes and wiggled her fingertips in an attempt to gain his attention. One man shouted from across the room, “Adriaaaan!”
He ignored them all.
“And the lady’s name?” the bartender asked, tugging Shauna’s attention back to the bar.
“I don’t know. Big-boobed-ho-bag sounds pretty appropriate.”
Shauna paused at the sudden halt in conversation. “Oh, me. Shauna.” She shook her head. “It’s Shauna.”
He slid a stack of papers over the clean surface. The first few pages were folded over to allow clear view of the dotted line. “Sign here.”
She scribbled a hasty line that vaguely resembled her initials, then tossed the pen and made a hurried, shooing motion.
“This is your consent,” the bartender assured. “Wouldn’t you like to read through it?”
“No.” No time for that. Just hand over the damn button before Adrian sees it. She didn’t want him to know that mere seconds after entering, she’d already chickened out.
“All right,” the bartender sighed.
“You know how to use it?” He traded the paper for a large, clear button about the size of Shauna’s palm.
He extended the button, then retracted it again, back and forth as he spoke. “This is an all-inclusive pass—”
He continued, unrushed. “That means no restrictions.”
Shauna half-nodded. For some reason her brain couldn’t keep up. Everything played in dreamy afterthought.
“Your partner for the evening will be chosen at random and frequency according to the Grand Master’s discretion. Protection and safe words do apply, but must be worked out prior to engagement.”
The bartender set the button down with aclink. “Entry’s back there. Enjoy.” He angled his head deep to the left, to a giant birdcage of chrome and green, behind the pole dancers.
Shauna thought the cage had been nothing more than a stage prop. But from this angle, she could just detect a thin metal railing that corkscrewed into a lower level of some kind.
She held a staying finger out to the bartender. “On second thought, could I get a copy of that?”
“But first, a drink,” Onyx offered.
She nodded. “Something strong.” Preferably cement and a swizzle straw. She had time to kill.
The bartender slowed as he set a blank contract on the counter. “Sorry lady, we don’t serve alcohol here.”
She glanced from the bartender to Onyx who held the same curious expression.
“Oh, no. I just meant caffeine,” she rushed to explain. “Like a monster. With extra teeth.”
The bartender—if you could call him that—frowned. “Extra-caffeinated caffeine?”
Onyx shrugged. “She’s from Seattle.”
“No drinks,” Adrian barked. His palm slammed onto the bar, covering the button before Shauna could swipe it away. It scraped along the surface in what sounded like broken shards, as Adrian retracted it. He tucked it into his pocket.
“Well, that was rude.” Shauna pivoted on her bar stool, ready for battle. “And very out of character.” The stormy blue depths of Adrian’s glare stunned her. She didn’t even manage a warning shot.
The party, the drink, that same look of furious intent from years ago all came rushing back with hurricane force.
“Do you really think I’m going to chase you through this room all night?” Adrian demanded. He straddled the bar stool next to her, blocking Onyx off, and her in.
She looked to Onyx, and then lifted her chin. “It’s hard to chase me if I’m not running. Do you see me running?” She tucked the folded contract deep into her bra for safekeeping.
“Youarebreathing a little hard. And you look a little warm.”
She gave him a smarmy grin and offered a look around with her uplifted palm. “What’s your point of reference for that?” She leaned to one side. “Onyx, could you get me another button?”
“Why are you here?” Adrian asked.
“Pretty quick change of subject.” In fact, Shauna could use one of those too. She hooked one of the many clear saucers of liquid that lined the bar and slid it between them. The blue, mint-scented substance rolled around the saucer in a sluggish, half-set Jell-O consistency. “Maybe you’re the one who needs a drink.”
“That’s massage oil.” He meant that coaxing tone to annoy her. She being the wayward puppy and him tugging the leash. She moved for another one.
“Lube,” he replied.
She elevated the brown one and angled the warm saucer like a tiny pie on a catapult. “Okay, how about a mud mask then.”
“That’s wax.” He set it aside. “And it’s hot.”
Shauna let him take it. She’d need about six feet of it to get rid of him anyway. She breathed a sigh of frustration.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet? You’re out of your element. I don’t care how you got in or what you actually planned to accomplish here, but I’m taking you home.”
“Taking me home, huh? Unless that means what I hope it means, I just got here. I’m staying.” She twisted in her seat for a clear path to escape. “Stop trying to be such a gentleman. Let a girl have some fun.”
Adrian pivoted as well. His foot stomped down on the bottom rung of her stool. Blocked again. “This isn’t the place for you.”
Wasn’t her place? Where the hell did he get off? “Unless your name is Grigori, I didn’t see it on the door.” She waited for a response.
Stone-cold Adrian wasn’t offering one.
The little disk meant something completely different than what her roommate let on. Whatever it was, Kimmy wanted her down there. Above all, Adrian didn’t want her to have it. Do the math. That button meant power and a bundle of trouble. Shauna wanted it all.
Heat and excitement shot through her nerves when she covered his knee with her damp palm. “I have just as much right to this place—and that button—as you do.”
Adrian had come here tonight to get some. No denying that. The very thought of Adrian turned-on turned her knees to jelly. His erect penis, dusky and swollen with feral need, would be sliding intosomeonetonight. The heat of their bodies would permeate the room, beads of sweat forming as their bodies worked together, both fighting for release.
“How many of those chocolates did you eat?”
“What?” She looked up from his button fly. She started again, fingers walking toward his thigh. Her own body reacted in a rush of heat between her legs. “The night’s pretty young. I have endless possibilities. Besides, what’s it to you?”
“Let’s just say I know the crowd.”
“You don’t know me. Not anymore.”
Adrian leaned in. The curve of his nose nearly brushed hers. “I beg to differ.” The challenge came with a hot breath of power and possession.
“You want to prove it?” The words caught tight in her rib cage. “If you’re not going to help me, or even bother to hear me out, I’m entitled to console myself overyour rejectionby whatever means I choose. You have no right to deprive me.” She slipped off her barstool and leaned in close. Her hand slid to the crevice of his thigh. “Unless you’ve changed your mind.”
Shauna silkened her tone. “Have you ever wondered what would have happened all those nights ago? If I had taken you up on your offer?”
Adrian snatched her wrist in an enough-child’s-play grip and forced her palm to center mass, the hard ridge of his erection. A soundless gasp of awareness spilled from Shauna’s parted lips.
White teeth flashed in a split-second grin before it was gone. With a firm, one-armed grip, Adrian pulled Shauna in tight until his moist breath fanned her upper lip. The movement of his mouth played against hers with every word. “I’ll tell you what would’ve happened. You would have been safe.” He rocked forward against her hand, pressing his erection into her palm. “And warm—” He rocked again and slid her hand down the full length of him. “—and sleeping on my couch.”
Flames of anger licked up her veins. Lie. That was a lie. She pushed away from his chest, and this time, he permitted her escape.
“Your button, Ms. Mouse,” Onyx called from her left. His voice lifted with giddy delight.
Shauna ignored him and swiped the new button from the counter. “I’m not taking ‘the couch’ for an answer either.” She took a step back toward the pit, then another.
Adrian shook his head in warning. “You don’t want to go down there.”
Shauna lifted her arms. “It’s your choice, really. You or the pit.” She blinked. “Yourhelp. Or the pit.”
“Dungeon,” Onyx corrected.
Shauna’s tone lightened with feigned interest. “Oh, it’s a dungeon? How fun is that?” She started walking. “This I gotta see.”
Adrian’s voice hardened. “Grow up, Shauna. You know that’s not what you want. They’ll have you on your back, all right. That might sound good now, but I’m warning you, they’ll put you in positions you never thought imaginable.”
“Sounds great. I love twister,” she shouted over her shoulder. The forceful turn of her head caused her to side step before continuing on course. Hopefully he didn’t see that.
“Run little mouse, run!” Onyx clapped his hands with glee.
Halfway to the pit, Shauna’s heart kicked up as Adrian’s voice rumbled behind her. Close. Too close and too quick, as though he hadn’t moved but suddenlyappearedthere. His words fired around her like whizzing bullets as she marched ahead. “You’re pissed because I turned you down. You want to get even. I’m sure your blatant lack of sexual adventure is pretty damn frustrating.”
“Oh, shut up.”
A firm grip caught her arm. “Look.If you want to get off, that’s fine. That’s reasonable, but do it in the comfort of your own bedroom. Not here. You’re in no condition to manage what goes on down there. Above all, you have no clue what you’re doing.”
Really.She stopped. Out of shock or confusion she wasn’t sure. The last several years of her sexual history hadn’t crossed the threshold of her own bedroom door. Don’t say he could detect that too.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret.” He continued. The scent of hot cinnamon and camphor radiated from somewhere behind her. “You ever heard of love potion number nine?”
“Doesn’t really sound like your fragrance.”
He lowered his voice, and released her arm. The firm press of his body consumed her from hip to shoulder. Her head grew heavy and tipped back on its own accord to rest on his shoulder. If her bones could reach a melting point, she’d be a puddle at his feet.
“Those chocolates?” he murmured. The stubble on his chin grated the soft shell of her ear. “The ones you took? That would be lust potion number two. Though, I’m thinking I should probably rename it cock-tease number one.”
Shauna jerked her head upright. “You’re serious. That’s your excuse?”
“How else do you explain your current state of arousal?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just messing around—”
His tone dropped. “You’re wet, shortcake. Soaking.”
Shauna’s mouth unhinged in horror; she moved to escape him.
Thick arms closed around her, holding her in place. Not squeezing, just holding. “It’s a perfectly normal hormonal reaction, but it’s royally screwing with your logic right now. You make this decision, you’ll regret it.”
So that’s what this was all about? He didn’t want to be held responsible later? That was it?
“Isn’t that what this place is for? Making bad decisions?” she countered.
His arms lifted. His touch, gone. “That’s what you want?” His voice grew tender and something in its depths tinged with regret. “Your first time? This is really how you want it?”
The shell of her heart crusted over.Shows what you know. She hadn’t been a virgin since high school. Any chance at normalcy had been stolen the moment she stepped into that frat house. The doctor classified it as an “attempted sexual assault” because although she had been bruised and swollen, her perpetrator hadn’t managed to “seal the deal” before the flames took him.
But he had stolen her life. Her chance to be normal.
Shauna tried to mask the anger boiling at her surface. She’d fight to getnormalback by any tactic necessary. She pulled in a tight breath and forced it down.Look dumb, flaunt the package. It’s not that hard.
But in a blink, the anger won and overtook her mouth.
“I want more than that. I want you.” She lifted the button between them. She stuck out her bottom lip in what she hoped was a porn-star worthy pout. “If you can’t help me, I’m afraid I just won’t be able to help myself.”
Shauna marched for the railing. A heavy sigh of what must have been annoyance rushed from his lungs.
“You’re not settling. I’m going with you.”
Well, that’s just great.
Shauna’s pride-filled chest deflated a bit. Adrian knew the crowd enough to let her into his playground. Now he had the upper hand, the knowledge, and the new kid parading in front of him down the stairs. All of the fun seemed to be deflating from her naughtiness balloon. She clomped down the spiral staircase, feeling more gangly and awkward with every step.
Shauna’s attention fell to the barrel-chested brunette woman who perched on a bench at the bottom of the stairs. The woman’s critical gaze drew lines of age near her eyes and red-painted lips. And not just any gaze, this was the kind that snared and sunk its teeth in. Whether eyeing Shauna up for battle or breakfast she wasn’t sure.
When Shauna handed over her button, the woman’s attention finally broke and lunged for Adrian. The verge-of-liver-failure hue that bronzed her cheeks pinkened. Her lips pulled back to reveal a wry, smoker’s smile. “Surprise, surprise. It’s my ole pal, Adrian.”
“Evening, Darla,” Adrian muttered, a reply that seemed more chore than friendly salutation.
The bottom floor opened to a ten-by-ten stone room. For the number of people crowding in, it seemed pretty quiet.
Shauna expected to find a carnival of outrageous sexual activity by now. Whip-cracking, chain-rattling, swinging-from-the-chandelier type stuff. She paused, still gripping the railing. Apart from the man-eating button collector continuing to stare Adrian down, there wasn’t any of that sideshow business.
She panned the crowd of nearly thirty people. How long had they all been waiting here? Shauna hadn’t seen any of them upstairs. Some unspoken order to behave seemed to be wearing thin. A squirmy vibe of sensual tension seemed to filter through the room. It touched and bounced from person to person, as one woman crossed and uncrossed her shapely legs, a tee-and-denim man paced back and forth along the nine-foot iron bars, and Shauna took a retreating step backward.
Her nerves flipped to panic mode.
The muggy warmth of body heat and perspiration saturated this place. The tiny hairs on her arms stood on end, and the sickening churn of her stomach went cold.
The heat would come soon.
Shauna swallowed. She’d been lucky to get this far, but now she teetered on the edge of an invisible threshold. She searched the room for open space. There wasn’t much, not enough to get away from the hormones thickening the air.
She took another step back.
The closest ventilation took the form of an enormous black gate, but that seemed to be what everyone waited on. Not the place for Shauna. In mere moments, she’d become a flaming doormat trampled by a lust-driven stampede.
Adrian pressed his lips to the back of her head. The moisture of his breath seeped into her hair. A cunning smile curled through his voice. “Problem?”
Shauna jumped forward, abandoning her subconscious disappearing act. Pretty lame, trying the squeeze herself into the crevice of his abs. “No. No problem,” she rushed to assure.
She took an extra step away for good measure. Her gaze fell to where her arms squeezed protectively around her abdomen. She pushed out a slow breath, thankful no visible cloud of heat rolled from her lips. “So…what happens now?”
Adrian’s stormy-blue gaze lifted, and he offered a faint nod at the large gate.
A man, six foot tall and about that wide, had appeared on the other side. His grin stretched between the bars and his fidgety gaze danced eagerly through the crowd. A ring of keys jingled near the gate’s opening, but the man didn’t look down. He seemed to fumble in greedy haste at gaining access to his new patrons.
The hinges squawked in rust-eaten protest when the man swung the gate wide. He stepped back, but no one moved.
Shauna caught herself staring, too. That’s where they were headed?
Hydrangea and white moonflower blooms glowed amid the pillars of candle light. Waxy vines clung to the darkened hallways running in both directions. They draped over a massive iron gazebo that centered the largest indoor garden Shauna had ever seen.
She nodded to herself. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Come on, come on,” urged the man. His grin widened, and he made a jumpy, coaxing motion as if drawing an entire herd of Hansels and Gretels into his kitchen.
Inside, the cement walls and cobblestone floor radiated with the sun-beaten warmth of July.
A little strange for October.
Tiny firefly lights pinpricked throughout the foliage, and mirrored the star-painted ceiling above. It seemed difficult to find any beginning or end.
Finding pain seemed no problem at all.
Shauna tried to ease her stomach’s rollercoaster drop. This Garden of Eden had been tended by Jack the Ripper.
Manacles dangled empty from each of the gazebo’s five arches. A chandelier of chains drooped from the center. Along one wall, a medieval fence of stainless, metal chairs were interspersed among the foliage. The chair backs made of what appeared to be sharpened pikes.
Adrian’s voice rumbled low near her left ear. “Seen enough?”
She shrugged away from him. “Are you kidding? This is incredible.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my fine privilege to welcome you to the garden.”
Shauna turned to the voice behind them just as the gate slammed shut. The forebodingclangof metal-on-metal seemed to stop everyone in their tracks.
The large man chuckled, a soundless laughter that could only be detected in the faint giggle from under his multicolored sweater. “For those of you who do not know me, I am your host. Your Orchestrator. You may call me O.”
He lifted his hand in offering to the new world around them. “I’m sure you’ve noticed this is no ordinary dungeon. We pride ourselves on secrecy, discretion, and trust.” His belly jumped again in a silent snort. “On some level.” He cleared his throat and sped his words as if racing back to the task at hand. “As you can see, our garden has many secret pleasures and toys.
“The tool shed.” O pointed northeast, to where a primitive stone structure had been fitted with what looked like a steel refrigerator door. Inside, shelved racks of surgical trays were draped with blue paper cloths. A large assortment of gleaming knives, scissors, and gloves hung from the structure’s inner walls.
“The koi pond.” To the right, fattened, orange and yellow fish lapped at the water’s surface. Their white, gossamer fins floated eerily through the ten-by-ten-foot blackened pond. Attached, a wrought iron bridge led to a cement island pad. In the middle, a coffin-sized, metal fire pit. The jumping flames, which seemed more blue than yellow, danced in a silent reflection from the mirror-like, metallic pokers, irons, and shovels that lined the wall.
Shauna bounced up and down in her best attempt at schoolgirl excitement. “Oh, oh. Fireplay. I can do that one!” She nudged him with her elbow. “Or the pond. Welike ponds, don’t we?”
Adrian rounded on her with a scowl that would send most grown men scurrying.
“What?” she asked, biting back her grin of impending triumph. He’d give in. Any second now she’d cross one line too many and end up over his shoulder and out the door.
Or over his knee.
Maybe his bed?
She closed her eyes. Umm…. Or with acure?
“Many titillating opportunities for you to try. To enjoy,” O continued. His tone hardened to reclaim the crowd’s wandering attention and titters of delight. “But make no mistake. Just because you’ve gained passage this far, doesn’t mean you’ve earned the privilege to play in my garden.”
He lifted his arms akimbo, pointing in opposite directions, airline attendant style. The dark, rounded alcoves that lined the halls were fitted with black metal bars. “To either side of the garden you will find a chance to earn that privilege.” O’s tone lightened. He closed his eyes and swayed a bit, as though entranced in a song all his own. “So make friends, my little love birds. Play nice. Sing pretty enough to please me, and you shall earn your key.”
Shauna hesitated. “We have to sing?”
“Cry, moan, scream. It varies. But you won’t leave until you give him what he wants. He’ll know if you’re faking.” Adrian tipped his head. “Are we through now?”
Shauna ignored the question. The irritated edge in Adrian’s voice seemed sharper—and more in her favor—by the second. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t leave. She might be on to a golden opportunity. A cure. “How do I know what he wants—”
“Youdon’t.” An unyielding command flashed in his eyes. “Don’t even try. I’m coming for you, and you’re staying put.”
She snorted. “Like hell.”
O paused. He issued Shauna a warning look. Seemingly satisfied with her apologetic smile, he continued. “Once you earn your key, you will be released into the garden.”
The cogs in Shauna’s brain picked up speed as she scanned her surroundings. If the hard-core stuff stayed in the garden, and Adrian wanted her out, guess who had the upper hand now? To sit in her cage and simply wait for jailbreak, where would that get her at the end of the night?
If she were lucky? A couch.
“But of course, this is a game of chance.” O looked knowingly at Adrian. “We have many ways to make you sing.”
Adrian’s posture stiffened. A tiny muscle near his jaw jumped to attention.
Shauna stared. The look of defiance and mistrust that played on Adrian’s face was like nothing she’d ever seen in him. Did he know about this?
Then she heard it. A soldier’s march trailing down the stairs. Four men and four women proceeded down the staircase from where Shauna had come. Their gladiator physiques completely exposed, except for the wingspan of a large bird tattooed across their chests, and a black, mesh bag with a silver drawstring tightly synched around their heads.
A wave of alcohol and menace followed their purposeful stride until they fell into rank behind O. They turned their full attention to the crowd.
One woman made a slight pivot, back and forth, as if consoling the ten-inch, pink dildo that she held in both hands. Another looked transfixed on the crowd with her fists planted on her hips, and a leather riding crop dangling from her wrist. The final man, who seemed somehow paler than the others, stroked the hard length of his greased-up penis in a slow, foreboding rhythm.
“These, my love birds, will be your hawks for the evening.” O ambled down the line of behemoths with his chest puffed in imminent victory. “Before you ask, there is no limit to their mobility and your cage will not save you.”
Great. The cages weren’t safe either? Shauna glanced at the hawks and then at Adrian, but her self-appointed babysitter didn’t move. His eyes were still fixed on O.
She knew that look. Adrian was calculating again. This game of chance must have introduced a new element even Adrian hadn’t anticipated.
“If you catch a hawk, he or she is yours for the evening. But if a hawk catches you, you become their prey. Their hoods remain in place at all times for the ultimate in anonymity. Our predators are the cleanest and safest of specimens, but you are by no means safe from their wrath.”
The courage inside Shauna went from apple to sauce. What the hell had she gotten herself into? They’d be separated. Calling Adrian’s bluff and acting exactly as he said—a spoiled brat—wouldn’t get her anywhere now. They were trapped, both of them, and it was her fault.
O pointed to the ceiling and lifted his sandy brows in innocence. “You have all signed a consent. But if any of you wish to back out, speak.”
Adrian turned to face her.
Swallow your pride. Choke on it if you have to.
Shauna opened her mouth and then closed it again, her tongue caught in a net of uncertainty. After tonight, and the mess she’d made, Adrian would disappear just as he had before. Then she would never find help.
What could she offer him beyond the threat to her safety? How could she become more than the troublesome neighbor kid he’d dolefully watched out for all those years ago.
She shrugged in defeat. “How else can I do to convince you?”
The stoked anger and frustration rushed to Adrian’s surface. His cheeks turned red, and his lips twisted into a sneer. “Not putting yourself here. That’s for damn sure.”
“All right, birds,” O called. “Choose your cages.”
One gate slammed shut and then another as the remaining crowd galloped down the hall amid nervous laughter, and cat calls.
The first cell on the block hadn’t been picked yet. With any luck, the others would pass over it in their haste. Shauna rushed ahead, not running away, strategizing. She nodded to herself. After all, who in their right mind would barrel headfirst down a path of certain destruction? She had a plan…somewhere.
Stepping inside, the heels of her boots plunged into the black, gymnasium-style pad that took up most of the floor.
She grasped the cell door to steady herself then jerked it to near-closed behind her. She turned, and with shaking hands, she nudged the door closer and closer to flush. Maybe no one would notice it wasn’t shut completely.
Pushing Adrian out of his comfort level would be a lot easier if she knewwherehis comfort level was. You’d think Mr. Everything in Moderation Man would look a little out of place in this anything for ejaculation environment.
Nope, he looked right at home.
If he didn’t give in, if he didn’t rescue her, she’d get the hell out on her own.
Think.She pressed her back to the gritty wall and deep into the shadows.Use your brain. Think.
But her brain seemed too busy flinging insults for getting into this situation. Her heart, hammering for rescue, wasn’t helping much either. Hell, even the demon-brat who got her here wasn’t findingthisamusing.
The remaining herd clattered over the cobblestone floor with skips and spins. Amazing how delighted they seemed. Like imprisonment was next best to Disneyland.
That’s where she was. Trapped. In an X-rated version of Pinocchio.
O’s warning echoed through the hall from somewhere ahead of her cell. “Here come your hawks.”
Now would be a great time to disappear.
Shauna shifted from one foot to the other. Hands up, she readied to thrust the door open. When the last person passed her, she’d make a run for it.
The cellblock fell quiet. Only the distant gurgle of the pond fountain met her anxious breaths. She edged forward.
She halted when a shadow eclipsed her cell.
Adrian’s broad shoulders were steady set and unyielding as he passed her door.
The cold press of the metal bars knocked against either side of Shauna’s temples as she reached for him. Her door hinged open a bit with a low groan. She pulled it back just as quick. She tried again. “Psst. Hey.”
Adrian strolled out of reach to a cell several doors down and across the hall, as if he had the world’s best headphones and all the time in the world. As if the stupid cell had his name engraved on it.Nanny-nerd of the month. All violators will be towed.
Adrian pivoted to face her as he reached for his door. The look of resentment never broke as he pulled the gate shut with an ominous click.
Stubborn. Shauna stepped back, and her arms fell to her sides. What did he have to go and do that for? With his cell locked, he couldn’t reach her even if he wanted to.
Her heart tensed. Maybe he didn’t want to reach her. From the scowl that pulled at the corners of his mouth and the shadow that darkened his eyes, he’d rather leave her for dead.
She scanned the dingy corners of her cell, fighting the hurt that threatened to consume her. So this was it. He’d never give in.
There had to be a way out, a loophole, something. She couldn’t trust any of these people to form an alliance against Adrian. The ploy ended here. These people played for flesh.
She eyed the strange, dangling pendulum of Velcro and chains poised in the center of the room. Its metal links clinked together when the adjoining cell slammed shut. She wanted a chance to appeal to Adrian. He still didn’t understand her dire need for his help. But she didn’t want to show him this way. Not like this.
She expected to see a flock of plundering hawks swoop past her cage. It wasn’t the case. They wandered by with measured steps. But they didn’t choose anyone. They paced back and forth behind the portly ringmaster. They wandered a bit but they always returned to him, waiting for a final nod for deployment.
“Swing, baby bird,” called the female hawk to the cell nearest Shauna’s. Soft, yet somewhat orchestrated moans filtered into the hall. The hawk sneered. “Spread your legs and fly.”
Shauna turned to the apparatus in the center of her cage. Some sort of sex swing?
She tucked back her chin. This wasn’t Cirque Du Soleil. That key better be worth more than freedom and frolicking in a garden if they wanted Shauna anywhere near that thing. No telling where it’s been.
The Orchestrator paused. Shook his head as if not convinced, and motioned the female hawk towards the moaning cell.
“Aww, but I wanted that one,” cried a man from across the hall.
The female hawk turned from adjusting the strap-on dildo on her hips, giving the complainer her full, ten-inch profile.
The man put both hands up in an I-surrender pose. “Never mind.”
The ringmaster—or whatever he called himself—ignored the hawk’s delicate snort and the muffled snicker from the adjoining cells. Instead, he bubbled with animation as he neared Adrian’s cell. The Oracle paused from his hippity-hop routine just a few feet from Adrian’s cell. Was there anything more repulsive than a leprechaun jig of that size?
“So do you like the new curtains?” O’s words ran together with pent-up excitement. He ignored Adrian’s look of irritation, as usual, and his eyes widened with feigned surprise. “No? Didn’t notice? Well, I guess that wouldn’t be the first thing on your mind. We have made a few bigger changes,” he allowed.
Adrian’s teeth scraped against each other and sent shockwaves of pain up his jaw.
O offered a hand gesture to the row of hawks prowling the hall behind him. “Not quite the same potency as the legend of Adrian Sands, but we do our best to maintain a similar flavor.”
Adrian’s upper lip twitched on the verge of disgust before he clenched his mouth shut. Flavor? Hard to mask the rancid stench of blood and sewage that had seeped into the concrete floor over the years. To make it extra cozy, add the overproduction of vanilla bean incense and the cheap perfume and body odor that tainted every reachable surface.
Adrian’s gag reflux twitched.
O’s thick, sandy brows drew together in sympathy. He ticked along the row of bars with his index finger as he paced Adrian’s cell. “Of course, not even my strongest hawk holds a candle to you.”
Adrian’s fist clenched at the chance to latch onto O’s neck and slam him back and forth against the bars like a paddleball. He may have spent his youth poaching pretties here, but he never hurt people. Domination, pain, rape, the very thought dropped a cold stone in his gut.
His peripheral vision anchored to the cell Shauna had stepped into. His mind geared-up for the slightest of movement from her cowering silhouette. Too dark in there to see much. Wise choice.
The Oracle angled his body to the cell adjacent to Adrian. “Just look at them.”
At the first hint of attention, the willowy man in the cell tossed back his mop of candy-cane highlights and flattened his chest against the cage. His voice strained with desperation. “Please. Let me out?” He snaked up and down the metal, blanching his colorless skin.
Might want to think twice before licking those bars, buddy.
The hawks paid no attention. They continued their dead-from-the-waist-up march up and down the hall. Their bare feet slapped the floor in steady rhythm.
“What’s taking so long?” muttered a woman from somewhere down the row.
Judging from the crowd, the rape and pillage was running a bit behind schedule.
The candy-cane man’s attention veered to a passing hawk. In a blink, his bony arms hooked between the narrow bars, his hands contorted into claws. He lunged for the steroid-swollen gym rat. Missed. “Come back,” he insisted. His pale featured contorted in outrage, then eased again. “I’ll do anything…”
O slowed his words as if musing to himself. “Look at how they react to the very thought of getting what you offered here.” He turned. “They’ve missed you.”
“They’ve missed the drugs,” Adrian muttered.
“Not really.” The Oracle pinched his thumb and forefinger together, as if holding the most precious grain of wisdom he’d ever found. His voice lowered to a serpent’s hush. “You see, as far as they know, the drug never left. It just became a littledifficultto obtain.”
“You mean impossible.”
“Yeah, pretty much.” The O brightened. “Hey, business is business. They know the risk. None of these people are being heldor forcedagainst their will.”
Adrian took a menacing step forward. “Or under false pretenses?”
“Sketchy pretenses at best.”
His vision narrowed.
The O stepped back and held up his palms. “You can’t go blaming me. You started this, honey. This wasyourgame.”
No denying that.
Finding pleasure in another person didn’t come easy. Not unless it came five-three with honey-streaked curls. Legs limber and toned from jumping fences, and a dusting of freckles earned from days spent thieving through Jensen’s summer garden.
A little hard to come by in an underground sex club.
So Adrian used his apothecarian gift to bend reality. A lot.
Only he saw the illusion through the air-light, undetectable powder. The women had no idea. It never lasted longer than a quickie, and it didn’t work more than once on the same person. Perfect excuse to leave his relationships at the club the way they belonged. Short and meaningless.
But as with any of his novice concoctions, it came with a side effect. And this one fell right into the Oracle’s food bowl. The residual powder that had dusted his one-night-stands left them with a rather gratifying taste. Or so he was told. The end result? A bunch of middle-aged, mental-Aphrodites offering themselves as the club buffet.
Night after night, no one could get enough. Passion turned to greed, then anger, violence. For the women, attention was attention.
Months later, when the effect finally wore off, the women went from seasoned steak to stale cardboard. By then, violence was the only thing left. O had been gnawing on the leftovers ever since.
The Oracle shrugged. “What did you expect? I can’tundowhat you’ve created here. When you left, this place became…watered down.” He scrunched his nose.
“Not my problem.” Adrian’s peripheral vision yanked back to Shauna’s cell as one of the smaller, male hawks paced by.
The hawk hesitated. He turned his full attention to Shauna’s door.
Did he notice that she’d left it slightly ajar? Probably trying to hedge her bets?
No. The man didn’t close it. He waited. He’d chosen Shauna as his first victim and was waiting for the order to strike.
Adrian worked to ignore the blast of anger powering through his veins. His gaze raced over the hawk’s profile. He calipered the man’s stance and the width of his shoulders. He sniffed. The sharp tang of gunpowder told him the guy packed heat on a regular basis. Not used to relying on muscle.
He could take him.
Blind him, that’s possible. Distract him, maybe. But the urge to bust through the bars and smash a hole in the bastard’s skull sounded best.
Forget the Oracle’s demands or teaching that stubborn Barbie her lesson. Game’s up. This ends now.
The Oracle moved to block his view. The edges of his smug grin plied into his fatty cheeks. “Not your problem? You sure? Because in case you hadn’t noticed, your little toy is scared out of her itty-bitty mind over there.”
“She’s not for this world, O.”
The Oracle snorted. “Well then, we wouldn’t want her to end up like the last one, would we?” O angled his head. “Probably never crossed your mind, did she? We kept her here.” He grinned. “Fed her more and more of your precious chocolate to keep her willful, but in the end,” he lifted a hand, “she didn’t much appreciate our accommodations. Is that what you want for your little doll? It’s not, is it?”
He erected his posture. “Because this one’s special. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this is the flavor you’ve been lusting after your entire life. Isn’t that right?”
If Adrian told Shauna to run…No, she’d never make it up the stairs and out the building. The patrons at the bar would take her rape as an everyday scene. They wouldn’t bat an eyelash.
Until their eyelashes singed off.
Shauna might be able to protect herself, but she shouldn’t have to. Damn if he shouldn’t have let her come down here in the first place. He should have been there to protect her the right way.
The first time.
If that guy touches her…
Adrian took deep breaths to clear the fog of rage clouding his mind. It must have registered on his face, because the Oracle’s voice grew louder and more urgent, as if trying to rise above the drumbeat in Adrian’s skull. “Give it to me, boy. I want the infusion, or that frat house memory of yours will be nothing! I’ll send my entire flock over there for a gang bang you’ll never scrape out of your mind.”
The word grated through Adrian’s clenched teeth. “All right.”
Seeming satisfied, the oracle stepped back. He waved over a female hawk. “You’ll start with a girl. That will be easier for you, right?” He jabbed a finger across the room. “Followed by him, then him.” He turned to face Adrian, his shoulders back. “Then me.”
“No?” A look of profound hurt wrinkled his brow. “Where’d all those good manners of yours go, Mr. Sands…Sands…Adrian Sands?”
Adrian jerked his chin to the one facing Shauna’s cell. “Him first.”
“Oh.” The oracle paused. “O-okay.” He tittered with delight and waved the large hawk over with an urgent flap of his wrist. “And to think, after all these years. You rascal! I can’t wait to see this tall drink of water turn into a pink lemonade.”
O’s pudgy fingers jabbed at the key pad attached to the cell door. “Or maybe it’s to make your doll feel better about the whole thing.” He waved the option away. “Oh, who cares?” He laughed. “You can do me next.”
“It’s a drug. Not a miracle,” Adrian muttered.
“But you’rethe miracle worker.” The Oracle’s face fell serious. “You better pray this works.”
The moment the lock clinked shut on Adrian’s door, O bounded back, rear end first, to his vantage point. His bulb-shaped body jiggled as he trotted from one foot to another.
Shauna rose up on her toes. She pressed her cheek to the cold, stone wall, desperate to spy any hint of movement from her slivered view of Adrian’s cage. A quick snap of O’s fingers had turned away the beast about to enter her cell—but at what cost?
Maybe she didn’t want to know.
A leering male voice echoed down the hall. “It’s playtime.” Whether hawk or prey, she wasn’t sure. Shauna’s body tensed forward to pick up any sight or sound from Adrian’s cage.
The building chaos around her clouded her efforts, frustration creeped along her nerve endings.
“Wait. What about me?” offered a female prisoner directly across the hall. The woman bounced up and down and made a scooping motion with her hand, as though begging for the last chance to pull attention her way.
It couldn’t start like this. Not with him. Shauna’s heart sunk into a murky thought.
Or had Adrian requested this. But why? To teach her the harsh reality that anything goes here? That he ran the show? Or was he trying to spare her?
The hawks paced, their force growing in every step. Taunts and pawing invitations from their soon-to-be victims grew more urgent as the entire dungeon charged with eager energy.
A few hawks reared their cloaked heads toward O and Adrian’s cell, their expressions unreadable, before returning to the prisoners. Others faced the scene openly, as though waiting to act on the final outcome.
A scuffle ensued from somewhere within Adrian’s darkened bars.
“Whoa-ho,” shouted another prisoner. A grin edged in his tone.
“Get ’em, come on!” cheered another.
Shauna pushed out a huff of annoyance and glared at the overweight, dancing clown.Move already! She flinched at the deafening bang of metal that rattled through the corridor.
All sound cut off as the barred spectators collectively flinched in surprise. O jumped back a step and the crowd roared with new enthusiasm.
Something must have hit the bars. Shauna angled her head, searching. A heavy shadow dragged back into the depths of the cell. Could that be Adrian? He didn’t seem the grappling kind. He had the muscle for it, no doubt, but the guy who entered his cell looked like he could walk through a cinderblock wall.
The sound of shredding fabric met Shauna’s ears. Then a loud smack.
Her attention raced over the distant row of bars. The hawk hadn’t been wearing clothes. Whatever was happening in there wasn’t consensual.
The chime of metal links seemed to spur on the prisoners nearby. Shauna’s gaze flew to the dangling sex swing at the center of her cell, the same contraption that appeared behind every row of bars. She squeezed her eyes shut as her stomach took a sickening twist. This couldn’t be happening.
The cheers rose up with guffaws and sharp whistles from the onlookers.
She blinked back the tears that flooded her vision. Not him. Not Adrian.
He had been the silent guardian over her childhood and at one point, the keeper of her heart. He couldn’t be humiliated this way. Not for her.
The O’s upper body leaned back in shock. As if remembering himself, O rushed for the keys to the cell. He fumbled. Looked, fumbled again. His mouth flapped open and closed as if panic had crushed his voice box.
His tone grew from rasp to panicked squeal. “Don’t you dare…don’t you hurt him. He’s mine!”
“Adrian!” The name burst from Shauna’s throat.
She shoved her cage door open with such force it crashed into the stone wall adjoining it.
Her blur of action exploded into blinding pain the moment she smacked into the pale chest of another hawk. He snatched her torso bear-hug style, and pinned her arms to her sides then clamped down with a punishing squeeze.
Shauna clawed and tore at his arms like a wild animal. All the while, he fought her backward. Away from Adrian. Back to the cage.
“Nooo!” she roared. Shauna delivered a savage kick to the hawk’s shin. The hawk staggered, and his grip crushed her arms against her body. She reared back and slammed her forehead into the mesh bag. The loud crack of bone against bone was quickly chased by numbness, then pain. A fine, white mist danced in front of her vision.
He dropped her, then delivered a brutal shove.
Shauna’s feet flew from the ground. She scrambled midair to right herself.
Her back slammed into the mat. Like a ragdoll, her neck flopped backward, and her head quickly followed. A numb tingle swept up the back of her neck as she twisted to right herself.
“What’s wrong? Not enough action in here for you?” The bitter malice in his whisper sent a shocking chill through her mind.
Shauna backed away on hands and feet like a tiny crab ripped of her armor. Her mind flew through his words, trying to decipher his meaning.
That voice. She squinted at the mesh head covering. Her attention coursed over the winged tattoo. The right side appeared blurry and smudged from their confrontation. It wasn’t real like the others.
His tone hardened but remained low to not alert the others. “You really thought you could get away with this? With my connections? I know people. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
“Richard?” She shook her head. “What are you doing here?”
His head leaned forward as if searching for clarification. “What amIdoing here?”
“You—you don’t understand—”
“I don’t care.”
The riot of noise outside peaked to a thundering roar. Shauna scrambled to her feet and raced for the opening. They’d talk later.
Richard caught her shoulders and knocked her feet out from under her with a swift kick.
She slammed to the mat again.
“We’re done. You got it?” He used the back of his hand to touch what Shauna assumed was his nose. He glanced at the faint smudge of blood that stained his hand.
“Fine!” No time for this. “Just lemme go!”
“No.” His voice turned sly. “We’re finished. But I’m not done with you yet.” She couldn’t see his face, but an entirely different person seemed to be confronting her from behind that mask. Not the doting fiancé she knew, but someone bitter, twisted with betrayal. “Know what? I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you finally came asking for it.”
Shauna sent him a sharp look of disgust. “It’s not like that—”
He came at her again until the mesh bag brushed her cheek. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner, actually.”
The frothy scent of beer consumed her sinuses. She angled her head and backed away.
“It figures,” he continued, ignoring her retreat. “Not the savviest pussy in the alley, are you?”
“Don’t—” She parried his forward movement and scrambled to put the swing between them. “You’re drunk.”
“You’re a whore.” The flat of Richard’s bare foot slammed into her chest.
She slapped against the foam pad again, and the air rushed from her lungs. Richard seemed to squeeze out what remained of her breath as he stepped his full weight on top of her rib cage.
Shauna pried her nails under his foot but it wouldn’t give, she pushed at his ankle. He was too heavy. The burning pain in her ribs grew to the near snapping point. She made a hasty grab for the swing that shuddered above. Mere inches away.
With a callous brush of his hand, Richard held it out of reach. “In fact, I’d wager you’re not anything that you say are. You’re not a virgin at all, are you?” He thrust the heel of his foot against her sternum. The mesh bag flinched forward near his mouth as he shouted. “Are you!”
Her jaw hinged open in a mix of offense and pain. Her mind struggled to register his words.
“So this is the problem, then. This is why you won’t give it up.” The weight on her chest eased a bit, sparing her precious gasps for air. “It’s not holding out for marriage. One man’s just not enough for you. How many do you need?” The weight returned full force. “Two? Three?”
Shauna scream forced itself from her lungs in a guttural yelp.
“Too bad for you, I don’t like whores. But as a parting gift, let’s make sure you get what you want.” Richard’s chest jumped as he blew out a sharp whistle, but the other hawk was already moving toward him. He released her with a final kick and moved for the exit.
One thought became clear. Even the dirtiest of money was cleaner than this kind of revenge. Richard didn’t want to get his hands dirty.
His words were curt and expressionless as he passed the entering hawk. “Fuck her. Then bring your friends.”
He pulled the cell door shut as he left and gave it a secure tug. He never looked back.
Shauna leaned away from the approaching assailant, but his military steps didn’t falter. When he stepped within range, she kicked at the hardened length of his flesh-covered weapon.
He caught her foot before it connected. With a vicious tug, he yanked her forward. Her dress slid up, bare skin pulled and burned against the matt. She jerked her skirt back in place and twisted to crawl away.
Her assailant lassoed her throat with a tangle of Velcro and chains that hung from the ceiling. The animal scream that ripped from her throat cut off as he wrapped the swing around her neck and pulled tight. The man behind her shoved her lower half to the matt. Sharp pain branched from her overextended spine. The chains cut into her skin, and she scrambled up again, elbows propped on the matt to keep the pressure off her neck.
She sucked in air with tiny hitches.
The touch of skin against her inner thigh shot fear through her system. Her knees scraped the mat, routing for any chance of escape. Slick with moisture from her increasing body temperature, she couldn’t gain traction against the weight that pinned her down. Her lungs burned.
Shauna squeezed her thighs together as he shoved her dress up.
Her vision clouded on the edges with dark spots. She blinked to fight them back, but the spots grew wider. They bled together, then fringed with a red haze.
An inferno of heat swirled through her core and raged to the surface. It ripped the strength from her muscles. Her arms trembled under the weight of her own body, then finally gave in.
Helpless to hold it back, the flames burst to life around her. They singed her tender eyelids, and the smell of smoldering cloth and vinyl consumed her.
Cries of agony blared through her head. Her own voice chimed with the pained screams of another person.
Oh God. She was hurting someone. A fresh dose of fear engulfed her system, and the flames jumped wider in a surge of blinding light. She couldn’t stop it. She fought to lift her head, to escape, but her muscles wouldn’t react.
Stop it.She rolled her head to one side, and pulled in a gasp of scalding air and soot. Her diaphragm clenched in spasms of protest. Each cough sent jolts of pain through her ribs and scraped up her throat. The vinyl straps had melted and loosened their grip, but the tangled swing still cradled her upper body in an arched position. Her lower half lay flaccid and useless on the smoldering mat.
Shauna strained to open her swollen lids. Through blurry, red slits the hawk appeared, several feet away, rolling and twisting on the ground in inescapable pain, beyond the reach of Shauna’s flames, but locked inside the blistering shell of his own body. His waist and thighs were roasted to a lobster hue. Fragments of what could only be skin, hung like tattered rags.
The crackle of flames echoed amid scampering feet and the distant cry of fire from the other patrons. Pinpricks of water rained down from the cell’s sprinkler system. It did nothing to quell the blaze. Piercing alarms rang through the hall and metal doors slammed. Ghostly plumes of human bodies raced past Shauna’s cell.
A large, dark figure marched toward her, through the swirling, back smoke. He bent over the lock near the cell door. Within seconds, the metal hinges screeched open. His attention never turned to the writhing man on the cell floor. He approached the ball of flames that fluttered and snapped around Shauna.
Too close. Stay back! She couldn’t force the words through her swollen throat.
The flames answered for her as they expanded in a threateningwhoosh.
They consumed the man’s silhouette until he stood in the center of the orbiting flames.
Illuminated by the fire’s bright glow, no fear registered on Adrian’s hardened jaw. His chest expanded with a mighty breath. He pressed a fist just under his nose. The air rushed from his body again, through the funnel of his fist.
A cloud of jade-colored smoke burst from his hand, expanding and curling through the room, pushing out the smoke and crawling along the ceiling of her cell. Tiny, cooling grains hailed down on her. They bounced off Shauna’s skin like a hot frying pan. A faint, hissing sound grew until it overpowered everything else.
Shauna-flames bowed under the downpour. They weakened and flickered until they collapsed into nothing. The remainder of Shauna’s energy disappeared right along with them. She fought the heavy sag of her eyelids. The watery rise and fall of her vision brought sporadic dark and light glimpses of Adrian as he knelt beside her.
One thick arm supported her upper body as he unwound her from the tangle of chains and charred vinyl, then lowered her to the mat. He reached for her then retreated, as though unsure the safest place to touch.
Her exhausted mind couldn’t decipher the look on his face. Anger and concern tugged at his dark brows, and waged war in his eyes.
She wasn’t burned. Couldn’t he see that? She wanted to parrot the thought out loud, but the moment her mouth opened, she snapped it closed again.
Adrian rocked back on his heels and reached for the hem of his tee. Bronze muscles rippled animating the winged silhouette tattooed on his chest when Adrian pulled his shirt over his head.
He leaned over her.
Shauna drew in a painful gasp. She sent him a wide-eyed look of caution. He’d extinguished her, fair enough, but not evenshegot to pick and choose who she burned. Why would he put himself in that kind of danger?
Adrian’s face dropped all hint of emotion as he tugged his large tee shirt over her head. Shauna breath came easier as the dark cotton brushed her face. The warm smell of cinnamon and camphor soothed her charred sinuses. She wanted to burrow back inside the moment her head emerged, but Adrian wasn’t wasting time.
Her sock-monkey limbs flopped to her sides, first one then the other when he pulled them through the arm holes.