Category Archives: Chapter preview
On the roof of a house outside Truelove, Maine, master carpenter Max Doyle looks down through a skylight and sees the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. She’s naked, she’s gorgeous, and everything about her is perfect, down to the ball-busting tattoo of a rose that wraps around her hip. But it isn’t just any woman making his knees buckle. It’s his best friend, Rosie Madden. And as he stands there, mesmerized and precariously close to toppling off the roof, he knows he’ll never, ever be able to look at her the same way again.
Rosie can’t help but notice that Max is suddenly acting very strange—lots of long stares, totally tongue-tied, and not at all like the slightly cocky hunk she’s proud to call her best friend. She can’t figure it out, until later that night when Max rescues her from the world’s worst date, challenges her to a game of pool, and shows her just exactly what she’s got him thinking about. Repeatedly.
But life is complicated. Rosie’s cat, Julia Caesar, wants to eat Max’s dog Cupcake for an afternoon snack. A dream job threatens to pull them apart. And another glance through the skylight changes everything, one more time. Yet try as they might, they can’t go back to being just friends, because falling in love with the one you’ve always adored?
It feels so good.
I wasn’t planning to see her naked—I swear to God, I wasn’t. The day was a scorcher, one of those godforsaken New England summer days that makes a guy wonder how he ever said fuck you to winter. I stood on the roof of her house, three stories above the Maine woods, with a far-off view of the ocean. It was pretty, yeah, like the kind of shit real estate companies put on complimentary calendars. But in that heat, it was like standing on top of a goddamned toaster, turned all the way to burnt. I could feel that shit in my socks, straight through my work boots. At my feet was a stack of shake shingles, old school, to replace the ones that were missing. Her house had a few slow leaks, and one over her bathroom that made the ceiling look like a huge Rorschach test. She said it definitely looked like a rose in bloom, I said it definitely looked like Batman. But I told her hidden meanings wouldn’t make shit for difference when the ceiling collapsed into the tub, so there I was. Fucking miserable work, but I was glad to do it. Glad to do anything for her—anything she needed at all.
In the forest on every side around the cottage, the cicadas screeched. It sounded like a needle squeaking off a record player. I knelt down by the stack of shingles, using my utility knife to score a line through one to fit a nearby gap. I snapped it with my hands and tossed the scrap end off the edge of the roof. A trickle of sweat ran down my forehead, and I wiped my face with my forearm. One droplet got away, sparkling in the sun. It caught my eye, and I watched it fall, as it landed on the skylight window with a splat.
And that was when it happened. Boom.
There she was, right under me. She couldn’t have been more than six feet away, but she felt even closer. I had a direct line of sight down into her gorgeous, soft cleavage, bright and pure in the sunshine. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe it was the surprise of seeing her, but at first I didn’t really process that it was Rosie at all. My dude brain said, I want that woman.
Then my regular brain said, Don’t be an asshole, man. It’s Rosie. Have some respect.
Respect I definitely had, but of course I’d thought about seeing her naked before. She was so fucking beautiful that any man would have thought about it. Sometimes, like right then looking down into her dress, I couldn’t fucking help it. Sometimes we’d be out doing something ordinary, like eating dinner, or I’d be changing her oil, or she’d be teaching me to do shit I should have learned at some point in the last 34 years, like iron a dress shirt without screwing up the collar, and I’d catch myself watching her cleavage rise and fall as she breathed, or thinking how nice her legs were, and I’d think, Holy hell.
Now she was directly underneath the skylight. The angle of the sun cast my shadow down the roofline, away from the skylight, so I didn’t give myself away. Like that, I watched her. I gave in to my dude brain and just took her in. Her light brown hair glinted, and a beam of light caught the curve of her shoulder.
That was when the goddamned striptease started, beginning with the left strap of her sundress.
Her movements were graceful, sexy, sassy—the sway of her hips, the shake of her shoulders. I realized I might be in real fucking trouble, because I loved that sexy sass. It wasn’t normal Rosie-cute. It was naughty, like nothing I’d ever seen her do before. I liked it so much, I couldn’t look away. She shimmied out of her sundress, and it fell to the floor in a pool at her feet. No big deal, I tried to tell myself. I’d seen her in her bikini a thousand times. This was no different from that.
Except it was, because then she reached around to undo her bra. Before I could tell myself Don’t look, dude. It’s Rosie, don’t look, it was too fucking late. The straps slid down off her shoulders, and for one perfect second got caught on her nipples, swinging in the air before falling to the floor.
I pressed my clenched fist to my mouth and groaned into my hand. All my blood was leaving my head. The roofline was getting wobbly.
It wasn’t like I didn’t know her curves; we’d spent whole summers on the beach—I knew her shape and her softness, I knew her lines and her freckles. Every curve of Rosie Madden was sacred in my book. Fucking douchebags on the beach giving her eyes had to answer to me and my eyes, right behind her. She did that to me—I was one punch away from defending her honor, always. But this? This was different. Seeing your best friend in a bikini at a clam bake is one thing. Protecting your best friend from assholes with wandering eyes is part of the guy-girl best friend creed. But seeing your best friend, absolutely naked in her bedroom, without knowing she can see you? That was a different deal.
Part of me knew I should keep my eyes off of her. She thought she was in private, I had no business spying. Anyway, I didn’t want to be that guy. I hated that guy. But the other part of me, fuck. The other part of me was nothing but want.
Then she bent at the hips, and time slowed down, like some kind of stop-motion Jackie Chan kung fu sequence. All the cicadas went silent, at least in my head they did. The wind stopped blowing through the trees. It was just her, and her perfection, in the sunshine underneath me. I felt like I was on one of those glass-bottomed boats, looking at a world I never knew existed.
She tossed her bra aside, and it landed on her neatly made bed. She shimmied out of her panties, shaking her ass as she did. I growled into my fist, and that’s when I went down into a crouch.
Because as she shimmied I saw it in a V above her ass. My kryptonite. A skimpy thong.
All these years, all these decades, I’d had her pegged for cute cotton panties—pastel polka dots, thin stripes, shit that was sweet and sensible. But I was so fucking wrong. Black. Strappy. Tiny. Not sensible at all. Now it was in a rolled-up ball at her ankles. Using her toes, she plucked her panties from the floor, and caught them on one finger.
She was completely naked, not a thread on her. Every thought I’d ever had got sucked out of my brain, like dishwater down the sink drain. What was left was only one true thing, and it wasn’t about her ass, or her skin, or her breasts. It was the one thing I think I’d always known but never let myself feel. Until that moment.
She is the most beautiful woman in the world.
Part of the reason I thought that was, yeah, obviously, she was fucking stunning, every inch of her straight out of a dream. Not just my dream, either. Guys would slow down on Main Street to give her the elevator stare, and I’d quietly crack my knuckles and give them don’t-you-fucking-dare stares. But the other part, the part that wasn’t in my gut but that was in my heart, was that I fucking adored her. Adored her so hard it hurt.
She crouched down to pick up her dress, lifting the delicate straps with her small, sweet fingers. She pivoted, so I had a view of her other side of her body for the first time. There it was.
I groaned again. I wasn’t prepared for this shit; three stories up, that body was dangerous. It was a rose tattoo, snaking around her hip, on the milk-white skin that was always under her bikini bottoms. The part of her I’d never seen. It was serious ink, real art, not some namby-pamby temporary tattoo or some amateur shit she might’ve gotten in an hour at a tattoo parlor on a dare on a cruise to Puerto Rico. It was complicated, detailed, and artful. Multiple visits to some tattoo artist, touching that creamy skin—goddamn.
It took every fucking ounce of strength I had, but I did manage to look away. I felt as disoriented as if I’d been sucker punched. Not cotton—lace. Not cute—hot. Not my friend—my fucking fantasy.
She was so important to me, such an integral part of my world, that I’d never let myself think of her as more than what she was. She was like running water, or electricity, or the sunshine itself. She was one of those things that was perfect exactly as it was, and one of those things only an idiot would want to change. I never looked at her and thought, I wish I could have more of her than I do already. That would be like thinking, I wish I could turn that cold glass of water into a swimming pool. Or, I wish electricity came through the air. Fuck that noise. Perfect things are perfect things, and Rosie Madden was a perfect goddamned thing, from the tips of her toes to the freckles on her nose. And that rose, holy fuck, that rose.
I was strong, but not that strong, and I let my eyes move down again. She’d disappeared from view, mostly, except for the edge of her ass. I watched her rifle through her closet, and a few dresses fluttered onto her bed. On her bedside table, I caught a glimpse of the picture she always kept there, of the two of us together. The memories flew back at me like a runaway train. The first time I’d ever seen her was the day my parents and I moved to Truelove, at the start of middle school. The first time I ever saw her, she was volunteering at the community gardens. She had a smudge of dirt on her cheek, and I thought she’d looked super badass. I’d helped her dig up carrots and had been too fucking tongue-tied to say a goddamned word.
That’s how I felt, all over again times a thousand.
I’d never made a move. She’d cried on my shoulder through a line of guys who were never good enough for her. Jocks and pricks and a brief and seriously unfortunate stint with a guy who was a drummer for a reggae band who I hated so much it made me grind my teeth. But I never said shit about it. She was perfect even when she made mistakes. Tips of her toes. Freckles on her nose.
Never mind that rose. Like Banksy took on a temple.
One more time, I glanced down. Now she was sitting on her bed, and I saw that dark V shadow between her thighs. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. I watched her put on a pair of red panties. Equally skimpy, equally not-sensible, equally ball-busting. They were only tragic because they hid the parts of her I’d never seen before.
Christ. All. Mighty.
As the world started to spin, I realized fixing the shingles could wait. I’d been working on old houses long enough to know that if you found yourself on a dangerously sloping roof and felt like you might be less than 100% on the ball, you needed to reconsider your game plan. I needed to get my shit together—that body had me totally fucking derailed. So I made my way down the roof, basically bouldering down backward. I focused on my grip, and my steps, like a climber coming down from Everest without enough oxygen. When I got to the gutter, I worked my way around the corner, standing on the eave, and hooked my leg over my ladder, making sure to put one foot after another and keep a tight grip on every rung.
When I stepped off the ladder, I grabbed a bottle of water that she’d left for me and filled up my palm and then splashed my face. My sweat stung my eyes through the droplets of water, and I rubbed away the tears. I heard the hinges on the screen door creak. “All done?” she asked.
I opened my eyes. They stung like hell, but I didn’t give a fuck. There she was, in a dress I’d seen before. Striped and sweet. But now I knew the secret. There were red panties under there. Red. Cherry red. My eyes fell on that part of her hip that I knew was inked.
I managed somehow to snap out of it. “Sorry. Getting there. Spotted something weird with the skylight.”
Rosie cocked her head. “Were you up there? Above my room?”
Awesome, dude. Smooth. “Just noticed it out of the corner of my eye.”
“I don’t like you being on the roof.” She pursed her lips. “Too steep. Promise you’ll get some ropes up there or something? Promise?” She reached out and put her hand to my arm, her fingers with their short pink nails pressing into my tanned skin. I had a quick but totally unavoidable image of her gripping my forearm in a very different situation. I want that. So fucking…
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
When I didn’t answer—I knew that if I opened my mouth the first words out would be You. Me. Right Now.—she looked up at the roof and squinted into the sun. She peered suspiciously up at me and shifted her nose, kind of like a bunny. Adorable. She wasn’t very tall, so whenever she looked at me she had to lift her chin, which used to be cute. But now looked…like everything I’d ever wanted. “Have you had too much sun?”
I was vaguely aware that she’d said some words, but I wasn’t hearing them because I realized that I couldn’t see her bra straps, so that had to mean she was she was wearing a strapless…
Knock. That. Shit. Off. “I’m good.”
“Mmm.” She nodded and furrowed her delicate eyebrows, which had never looked so pretty as they did at that moment. I didn’t even know eyebrows could be pretty. They’re eyebrows, for fuck’s sake. But suddenly I felt like for the last ten years, I’d been looking at her through a standard definition television, with a shitty cable connection. Now someone had handed me an HDMI cable, and she was in 1080 dots per inch. Christ.
“Lemme make you a sandwich. You’re acting strange.”
Rather than answer her, I dumped the remaining half a bottle of water over my head, like Andre Agassi used to do between break points at the French Open.
“Ham? Or turkey? I’ve got both. Or chicken salad!” She clapped her hands together, compressing her cleavage. “Do you want a pickle?”
She means an actual pickle, you fuckwit. “Surprise me,” I told her, and dragged my eyes off the curve of her cleavage. I grabbed the bottom of my T-shirt and pressed it to my eyes. I had to get out of there. I needed a cold shower, or a call from my tax guy, or an unexpectedly urgent trip to the DMV—anything to stop myself seeing her stark naked every goddamned time I looked at her. Anything to get my mind off that ink.
As I wiped my face, she cleared her throat, and I dropped my shirt. “What?”
She pressed her lips together and rocked back on her sandals. “Nothing!”
I followed her eyes and glanced down at my fly, but the stallion was still in the barn. “Come on,” I said, finding myself smiling right along with her. “What are you looking at?”
“Just…” She swallowed hard. “Looking good there, champ.” She glanced at my stomach, where I’d shown her my bare abs. She made a fist and gave me a mock punch, soft and sweet. “That P90X is working great for you.”
Here we go again with the fitness videos. For everything else she was—beautiful, smart, funny—she was also a fucking ball-buster sometimes. She’d worked up this whole narrative that I spent my nights with Tony Horton on my houseboat, getting cut and doing reps while I drank protein shakes with a straw straight from the blender. It was her only explanation for why I didn’t have a girlfriend. P90X it had to be, she’d said. Or maybe, she’d whispered like a co-conspirator, “Jazzercise.” Now, though, I had a better idea than ever about why I was so picky: not a single woman held a candle to her. I’d been fucking blind to it, but now the mist had burned right off. “I’ve never even seen the opening sequence. Never have. Never will.”
“They’re streaming now!”
Rosie snorted and made a long wheeeeee. “Sure. Surrrrrrre,” she said, stifling her giggle. “One ham-and-turkey, coming right up.” She spun on her sandals and disappeared into the house. Hips swinging. Red panties invisible, but not to me.
Series: Love on the Rocks #1
Genre: Steamy Contemporary Romance
One night is all she wanted.Georgia Burke is on a mission to find a sexy one night stand. After she catches her cheating ex with her friend, in Georgia’s apartment no less, she visits her brother in his sleepy lakeside town to regroup. Her first night at Fox Lake and she finds the Drunken Duck pub and puts her plan into motion. Almost.
Will Calder is looking for the real deal. He’s done with the short-term flings and wants to find a woman ready for everything he has to offer. Will’s determined to show Georgia more than just a single night of debauchery and he’ll do everything in his power to keep her close.
Georgia’s going to find Will’s idea of the perfect woman isn’t what she expected. She’ll have to face her own insecurities to land the sexy contractor or settle for the vacation fling she anticipated.
Warning: Contains a curvy woman with a geeky streak and the contractor out to win her heart. Expect a sexy romp with a man who knows how to work with his hands.
girly bits. Granted, they were covered in her sexiest pair of cream lace panties, and she was here to pick up a hot
man to do the dirty with, but her newfound brazen spirit only went so far.
Young. They snickered at her expense again, but she squared her shoulders and moved into the interior of the pub.
It might be a Friday night on the lake, but it was still relatively early and the place wasn’t busting at the seams yet.
frat boy paled when he turned to face Molly’s husband.
“Thanks, but you didn’t have to kick anyone out because of me.”
You let any of us know if you need something while you’re here.”
Georgia nodded, then sat back and took in the petite woman. Small town hospitality at its finest. She might actually like it here. “I appreciate that. I’m a little out of my element right now.”
“I’d like that, Molly.”
the bar before walking away. Georgia scanned the area again. It looked like everyone was paired off or in groups. So much for her grand plan to score a hot guy for some dirty sex. It was probably a dumb idea anyway. Just because you found your jerk boyfriend sticking it in your friend, in your bed, and in your apartment, doesn’t mean snapping up a random dude at a bar was a good idea.
Outlawed noblewoman Jaida Lianl had been everything from a high speed courier on Arcalis Prime to a waitress in the cloud café’s on Selenis. Different careers, different names, different identities. When a cover got this easy–so easy she started to believe it herself–she knew she’d been in the same place too long. It was time to move on before she got comfortable and started to make mistakes. Mistakes would allow Imperial Prince Sethan to find her, and if that happened, people would die…
Now after five years, Seth has found her, and she can no longer outrun her destiny: she’ll be the prince’s courtesan, but he’ll never own her heart…
“You don’t have to go through with this, you know that…don’t you, sweetheart?”
Jaida smiled. “Dad, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Duke Lianl’s eyes were full of concern as he turned her to face him. His hands paused for a second on her armbands, then slid down to her hands. The armbands were new, to mark her coming of age. “You’re only eighteen Jaida. We can put this off a year or…ten maybe?”
“Dad, it’s fine. I’m fine. I’m all grown up now. You worry too much.” She chuckled, a light sound of amusement. Nothing could bother her today.
Her father smiled as he swept a look over her. His eyes were the same color as hers, deep sapphire ringed with the silver of royal blood.
“You look just like your mother. She’d have been so proud of you—” Duke Lianl broke off as a familiar sadness filled his eyes. She’d been dead ten years, but Malden Lianl had never forgotten his wife.
“Thank you. I hope she would have,” She squeezed his hands softly before letting go and then tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Shall we?”
“If you’re sure.”
Lord Malden gave in with a small sigh, but she caught the gleam of pride in his eye as he straightened up and gave a nod to the servant at the door. They were ready. The servant pushed the doors open ahead of them, and her stomach clenched. This was it. The moment she’d been dreaming of for years.
“His grace, Lord Malden, the Duke of Lianl, and his daughter, the Lady Jaida,” the herald announced. His rich voice rolled around the cavernous ballroom, a ringing voice that drew the attention of the crowds gathered below.
Would he be here?Jaida’s heart clambered into her throat, trying to escape the manic butterflies racing around her stomach. Shivers chased each other over her skin as Jaida and her father neared the top of the formal staircase. Wide and sweeping, it made a grand entrance into the palace ballroom, and as tradition dictated, every debutante walked down those steps to take her place in society.
Jaida’s heart stuttered to a stop, no longer beating wildly against the formal silk of her gown as everyone in the ballroom below turned to look up at them. Her knees trembled, knocking together so loudly she was surprised the people below couldn’t hear them.
Unable to help herself, Jaida lifted her eyes and looked out over the ballroom below. The floor was a kaleidoscope of color. The bright silks and satins of the women’s formal gowns contrasted sharply with the somber grays and greens of the men.
Her gaze swept over the hall. Had all these people really turned out just to see her presented to the court? Her eyes searched the crowds, looking for one figure in particular. He had to be here. A tall, broad shouldered figure dressed in black and wearing the sash of royal blood. Her breath caught in her throat as her gaze collided with piercing silver.
He was here.
His highness, Prince Sethan Kai Renza. Not just a royal prince, but an imperial prince, and the most eligible bachelor in the Combined Systems of the Fifth Princedom. The only man she was interested in seeing.
Everything faded into the background as he moved toward her, the crowd parting like water before him.
Her hand tightened on her father’s arm as they drew to a stop at the head of the stairs. They would remain there until she was formally invited to the court, then she would walk down alone. It was a journey that signified her transition from childhood to womanhood and marked her as eligible for marriage.
“Breathe, sweetheart,” her father said softly, obviously misconstruing her tension to be nerves. “Imagine them in their underwear if that helps.”
“Especially young Kai-Renza. I remember him as a snot-nosed brat in diapers.” Duke Lianl carried on, ignoring the fact that Jaida was trying to contain her mirth and failing badly. Luckily, being at the top of the expansive staircase, only her father could hear the delicate little snorts of laughter she couldn’t keep in.
“You can’t say things like that! It’s…I don’t know, treason maybe?”
The Duke shrugged, but the amusement drained from his face. Below them, the Prince stepped forward.
“What the hell…” Her father’s voice echoed shock as Sethan strode to the bottom of the staircase in a total breach of protocol.
What was he doing? The tension in her father’s body was catching, flowing through to Jaida.
“Duke Lianl, it’s a pleasure to see you at court again.” Sethan inclined his head in deference to her father’s status as a royal duke. Then he turned his attention to Jaida, and heat flared in his quicksilver eyes. She shivered. It felt like her soul had been branded. Then Seth did something no one expected.
He bent into a deep bow before straightening and extending his hand to her. “My lady, would you do me the honor?”
“Move that fucking piece of shit… Yeah, I’m talking to you buddy. Sheesh, some people really need to learn to drive.”
Jaida slumped back into the harness of her power loader and concentrated on transferring the load she was carrying from the open cargo hold in front of her to the anti-grav pallets beside it. She grumbled under her breath as she worked. Today was not a good day. The idiot-factor was so high she was virtually swimming in them.
She shook her head, her dark hair dancing about her shoulders, and issued another curse directed at idiots who wanted to load high and drive fast. Yeah, she was just as interested in her weekly bonus as anyone else, but there was no way she was risking a safety fine. Especially not when her rent was due.
She moved smoothly, arms and legs activating the sensor plates in the bi-pedal loader as she transferred her load container by container. A tired sigh escaped her lips as the last one slid into place with a heavy clunk-click. The red light on the side of the full pallet flicked to green and it moved away on automatic, a fresh one sliding into place in front of her.
“Hey chica, almost quittin’ time… You working overtime?”
Jaida turned at the voice, the feet of the loader clunking against the deck plating until she could see the voice’s owner. Felis, the only other woman on the team, smiled back at her through her front screen.
Jaida rolled her shoulders to ease the ache creeping across them. “Yeah, I am. Could do with the extra cash, and you know what’ll happen if the Galess shipment doesn’t get offloaded in good time. Hicks’ll pitch a hissy fit, and tomorrow will be down the shitter before we start.”
She smothered a sigh at her language, automatically coarse to match her cover identity. She’d been everything from a high-speed courier on Arcalis Prime to a waitress in the cloud cafés on Selenis. Different careers, different names, different identities. When a cover got this complete and easy, so easy she started to believe in it herself, she knew she’d been in the same place too long.
It was time to move on, before she got comfortable and started to make mistakes. Mistakes would allow Seth to find her, and then people would die. They always did. Trouble was she liked Felis and the guys. For the first time in years she felt at home. If a wanted woman could relax enough to feel at home anywhere.
“Jai! Boss wants to see you in the office.”
Another voice interrupted their conversation. Both loaders turned at the heavy clump-whirr-clump of an approaching crane-lifter. Jaida hid her shudder as the driver leered at them. All the women on the docks knew about Hanrahan—they’d all been subjected to his sexist and suggestive comments.
“Hey Jai, you want a hand getting out of that tin can? Perhaps a little bit of a rubdown?”
“No thanks Han, I might catch something.” She turned away in a whir of mechanics, rolling her eyes as she passed Felis. “Best see what the boss man wants. Catch you tomorrow if I’m not out before you leave.”
“Okay, good luck sweets. Mood he’s been in, you may need it.”
* * *
“Jai’s one of our best loaders…precise and fast. Keeps to herself. Never had a bit of trouble with her. Polite and easy to get along with, the others all like her…” The docking bay manager’s voice trailed off as the man at the window turned and fixed him with an iron gaze.
“She’s a criminal, Mr. Gregaris, not at all the sort of person you want in your employment.” Seth’s voice was quiet, but inside he was seething. He turned back to the window as the loader rounded the last corner and started down the straight walkway toward the offices. He watched it approach, his face an impassive mask. He’d learned early in life never to show weakness or reveal the chinks in his armor. As chinks went, they didn’t get much bigger than Lady Jaida Lianl.
Why? he mused to himself, his temper simmering just under boiling point. I would have given you the universe, anything you ever wanted. Why run?
The loader clumped to a stop below him and a force field snapped into place around the bay. The blue-turquoise haze was unmistakable, shimmering as oxygen was pumped into the enclosed area. The air vents on the hatch popped, releasing the pressure in twin geysers as the canopy lifted. A small, slender figure emerged and climbed down the front of the large machine with an ease that spoke of long practice.
Seth’s anger started to mount again. She would rather do manual labor than be with him? If it was work she wanted, then he’d be sure to give it to her…on her back in his bed.
“She’s a criminal?” The dock manager sounded confused. “Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but are you sure you have the right woman? Jai…no, I can’t believe she’d even think about breaking the law. She’s a stickler for them.”
Below Seth, the woman walked toward the door, pausing for a moment to look up as though she sensed the sword of Damocles hovering over her.
“Perfectly sure, Mr. Gregaris.” Seth bit back the surge of triumph. There could be no mistake. It was her. He resisted the urge to step back. She couldn’t see him up here, and even if she could, there was no way out. His men had the bay surrounded and his second in command was in place at the single room apartment she rented. There was no escape. Not for Jaida.
Not from him. Not now.
* * *
Something was wrong. Jaida reached the main doors and paused for a moment as a tendril of dread wound its way up her spine. Narrowing her eyes she tried to get a look into the lobby ahead as she passed through the first set of sliding doors. She couldn’t linger here. The bay was on a time sequence. In five minutes the force field would snap off, and she’d be left trying to breathe hard vacuum. Something she didn’t particularly fancy doing.
Rock and a hard place. She stepped forward. The doors slid shut behind her with a solid clunk. The sound rolled through her like a death knell. Her instincts screamed at her to run, not step into the reception lobby.
“Crap, crap, crap. This is such a bad idea.”
She moved forward to the doors and tried to peer through them as the airlock went through its cycle. She’d always thought it was overkill, what with the bay outside, but now she was glad of the delay. Trying for nonchalance, she scanned the lobby. Already her agile mind was working out all the routes out of the building.
Miriam, the receptionist, sat behind the large flexi-glass-and-steel desk, headset on and hands moving swiftly over the holo-console in front of her. Her fingers twisted and pinched as she worked, plucking at images Jaida couldn’t see from this side of the desk.
She scanned around, her vision panning from one side of the room to the other. Opposite the reception desk, a small group of couches sat in front of full-length windows overlooking the loading docks. Having worked on them for months, she’d have picked a different view. Even a blank wall would have been preferable.
Nothing was out of place, not even a leaf on the expensive Terranian palms in the corner.
“Okay, jumping at shadows. Get a grip, Jai,” she told herself as the doors in front of her slid open and she stepped through.
“Morning Miriam, boss called me. Shall I wait?”
Jaida headed toward the chairs discreetly hidden behind the palms. Unlike the plush couches for the visitors, these were hard, wipe-clean plastic. For the workers, people like her. The dregs of society. A long time ago she’d have sat on the couches and not thought a thing about it.
Those days were long gone. She went to sit on the chair nearest to the lift door.
“No. Go on up, go right in.” Miriam said.
One eyebrow winging up in surprise, Jaida stood and headed that way. It wasn’t until the door slid shut behind her and the lift started up that she processed what Miriam had said.
Go right in.
No one went right into Gregaris’ office. He was an approachable guy, if a bit blunt, but even so, no one went right into his office. The sense something was wrong hit her in the gut again, stealing her breath. The lift was too small. She couldn’t escape. For five years she’d made sure she always had an escape route, always had a way out. Panic clawed at her gut and her heart climbed into her throat.
Something was wrong. She dragged deep breaths into her lungs and forced her heart rate back down to something approaching normal. It worked, but only just. Her heart pounded and slammed against her ribcage. The sides of her neck hurt with all the tension as she battled her fight-or-flight instincts.
Gradually she got them under control, biting her lower lip as she watched the numbers above the door count up. Sweat slid between her shoulder blades and down the valley between her breasts. Nothing was wrong; there was no way Seth could have found her here, not with all the hoops she’d jumped through to set up this identity. A lot of money had changed hands for her to get the ID and med numbers of a kid who’d died at seven but whose parents had never registered the death. Med numbers were worth their weight in gold.
The door pinged. She gulped a lungful of air as they slid open to reveal the corridor beyond. It was empty.
Shaking her head Jaida stepped out the lift and walked toward Gregaris’ office. Plush carpeting under her feet ate the sound of her steps as she approached the door. Her hand reached out, was almost at the handle, when she paused. A frown creased her brow.
Something was wrong. The instincts that had been clamoring since the lobby ganged up on her and became tribal screaming. This time, she listened.
She snatched her hand back from the handle and turned on her heel. The space between her shoulders itched as she headed back the way she’d come. She could feel the crosshairs painted on her back, a little red mark dancing across her skin like a butterfly.
Walking past the lift door, she headed for the emergency stairs at the end of the corridor. She’d barely covered half the distance when it began to open. Her heart stilled, fluttering deep inside her chest as she started to backpedal. She knew what she’d see before the heavily armed trooper stepped through the open door.
Time slowed to a crawl as the muzzle of the trooper’s rifle swung toward her. The red dot of the laser sight raced across the pale walls, then across her field of vision, blinding her for a second. She turned and raced for the lift, yelling and slamming her hands against the flat metal of the closed doors.
“No. Oh please, Lady, no…”
They’d called it back down. She jabbed at the buttons frantically as more troopers piled into the hallway. There was no way out, just the lift and the stairs currently filled by imperial guards. Or…the office at the end of the corridor, the door looming in her peripheral vision like some harbinger of doom.
She abandoned the lift and raced up the corridor, grabbing at each handle as she passed, hoping beyond hope one would give. If she could just get into one of them she could find a ventilation shaft or something. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d escaped him that way.
“Lady Jaida Lianl, by order of his Imperial Majesty, you are under arrest—”
“Screw his Imperial Majesty!”
Her hand closed around the last door handle, and wonder of wonders, it opened. She stumbled through and slammed hard into a solid chest. Strong arms closed around her, and with a gasp she looked up into familiar silver eyes.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“No…” Her gasp of denial was automatic as she fought against his hold, vicious as a wildcat, bucking and heaving in his embrace.
“Yes.” He quelled her struggles by yanking her up hard against him.
Panic and awareness flared through her at the familiar feel of his body against hers. His Imperial Highness, Prince Sethan Kai Renza. Seth. The man she’d once loved with all her heart and soul.
Defeat wrapped around her heart in a crushing embrace as she looked up. He had the face of a dark angel, all hard, masculine lines. His eyes were mercurial silver, their cast almost feline, surrounded by thick, dark lashes. A straight nose sat above sinfully full lips reputed to make even a priestess think wanton thoughts. He was as handsome as she remembered, but where once his expression had been charming, it was now hard and triumphant.
“Let me go!” She shoved at the brick wall of his chest, but it was a futile gesture. Seth was solidly built with a warrior’s physique. Once it had thrilled her, but right now she’d give everything she owned to be on the other side of the galaxy.
“Anyone would think you’re not pleased to see me.” His drawl was rich and mellow, just a hint of his court accent tainting the galaxy-standard he spoke.
Jaida’s lip curled into a sneer. “You don’t think? Goddess, you musta been at the back of the queue when she was handing out the brains.”
He winced at her words. She knew he would. The rough dock dialect would grate on his nerves just as much as the insult.
“Don’t talk like that.” His hand slid into the hair at her nape, and his thumb stroked along the sensitive skin at the side of her neck. Refusing to be cowed, either by his touch or his larger, more powerful body, she pulled against his hold.
“Or you’ll what? Declare me an outlaw, exile me from my family, and denounce me as a criminal? Oh…wait. You already did that.”
Anger flared in his silver eyes. He leaned in until his lips brushed against her ear and whispered. “You’re mine, you always were.”
She snorted, an inelegant sound of amusement and contempt. “I’ll never be yours, Seth. Never. Why do you think I left? You’re not man enough for me.”
It was a foolhardy thing to say to an Imperial prince, especially Seth, but she wasn’t thinking. She wanted to hurt him. Deal a blow to his masculine pride. Her heart ached at the lie, but now that he’d caught her, it was the only weapon she had. Her heart had been shattered beyond repair anyway, so what was one more hurt?
All that mattered now was hiding the effect that seeing him again was having on her. She kept her expression cold and furious, but deep inside a flutter had started in the empty and bruised space in her soul. Blood surged faster through her veins at his touch, and the solid strength of his body against hers started a fire low down in her belly that burned brighter every second.
“Not man enough?” His eyebrow winged up, a raven arch against his pale skin. Court pale. None of the nobility would be uncouth enough to allow their skin to tan. Well, unless they’d been on the run for five years like she had, taking any job they could just to eat and provide a roof over their head. The first thing she’d done to fit in was get a suntan.
As soon as the word was out of her mouth, she knew she’d pushed too far. Fury blazed in his eyes, scorching her to her soul. His fingers tightened in her hair. She tried to turn her face away, but he hooked a finger under her chin and tugged. Not gentle, not rough, just unstoppable.
Held fast, she watched as Seth’s lips descended. A whimper escaped as he pried her lips apart and thrust his tongue past them to claim the sweetness within. The touch of his lips shattered her defenses. Disbelief and need surged through her in equal amounts. She’d promised herself that, should the worst happen and he captured her again, she would be as cold as the grave. Wouldn’t respond to him at all. To her, Sethan Kai Renza had ceased to exist as a man.
His kiss was designed to punish and humiliate, but as soon as he touched her, her body responded. The blood in her veins heated, and her breasts tightened as he held her. Her heart rate skittered and went through the roof as she developed trouble taking her next breath. Worst of all was the heat spreading out from her core. Shame burned bright banners across her cheeks.
She moaned against his lips as his tongue thrust again, sliding along hers and demanding her response. A response she gave, tentatively at first but then with unwilling passion. Her tongue tangled with his in an erotic dance, but her heart ached. After all he’d done, how could she crave his touch?
He lifted his head. Heat and smug satisfaction colored his eyes. “Not man enough, was it?” he taunted as he stepped away.
She clamped down on the sense of loss. There was no way she wanted him touching her, not ever again.
“Take her to my room at the Babylon, and for heaven’s sake, scrub the stink of the dock off her.”
Mina was born and raised in the East Farthing of Middle Earth (otherwise known as the Midlands, England) and spend her childhood learning all the sorts of things generally required of a professional adventurer. Able to ride, box, shoot, make and read maps, make chainmail and use a broadsword (with varying degrees of efficiency) she was disgusted to find that adventuring is not considered a suitable occupation these days.
So, instead of slaying dragons and hunting vampires and the like, Mina spends her days writing about hot shifters, government conspiracies and vampire lords with more than their fair share of RAWR. Turns out wanna-be adventurers have quite the turn of imagination after all…
(But she keeps that sword sharp, just in case the writing career is just a dream and she really *is* an adventurer.)
The boring part: A full time author and cover artist, Mina can usually be found hunched over a keyboard or graphics tablet, frantically trying to get the images and words in her head out and onto the screen before they drive her mad. She’s addicted to coffee and would like to be addicted to chocolate, but unfortunately chocolate dislikes her.