Read an Excerpt
From Bad to the Bone, by Sherrilyn Kenyon
Kyle Foster lay behind a short clump of bushes, scoping out the large compound that lay sheltered in the sand -- his latest target.
It was fifteen hundred hours and all the explosives were rigged. Their timers set. The beach was silent with a mild northwesterly wind that would carry the shrapnel and debris a minimal distance, toward the empty lagoon.
He was watching the countdown on his watch, waiting for something that would alleviate his extreme boredom.
He'd thought it would be the well-placed, perfectly executed explosion.
At fifteen seconds and counting, disaster struck as an unknown, unexpected civilian popped out of the small wooded area near the compound.
Kyle cursed. There was no way to stop the explosives, and he didn't dare shout at her.
Damn civilians never took orders well. Instead of doing as they were told, they invariably assumed the position of a deer in the headlights and asked, "What?" Which would be followed by the ever aggravating, "Why?"
By then it would be too late.
If he said "bomb," she'd scream and probably run straight for the explosion. Murphy's Law.
He was out of time.
Combat trained and ever ready to fight, Kyle launched himself from his covert position to intercept her before she drew any closer.
He mentally continued the countdown in his head as he ran full speed toward her....
Marianne saw nothing but a blur from the corner of her eye. One second she was heading toward the small sand castle that looked as if someone had constructed it with careful, minute detail. The next some large something had scooped her up into its arms and run off with her.
Breathless from shock and the feel of two extremely strong arms carrying her while the man ran across the beach, she didn't even have time to protest as the two of them flew in the opposite direction of the castle.
Just as they reached the pathway she'd been following, she heard a sharp click.
The man holding her threw the two of them to the ground and rolled them under some bushes as a massive explosion rent the air. The earth beneath them shook.
Her breath was knocked out of her from their fall, and panic welled inside her.
A sleek wall of muscle covered her body again as something began to rain down on the sand around them. She was overwhelmed by the combined scent of Brut, warm masculine skin, and Finesse shampoo.
Marianne instinctively covered her face until the "rain" stopped.
"What in the world just happened?" she asked, her heart pounding as she dared peek from between her fingers.
The man lying on top of her lifted himself up to look down at her.
In all her life she'd never seen anything like him. His eyes were bright and blue. Electrifying and filled with mirthful mischief. They reminded her of the boys in her classes whenever they were planning some youthful prank.
Only there was nothing boyish about the man on top of her. Obviously in his mid-thirties, his face was ruggedly handsome, with sharp cheekbones and at least a full day's worth of stubble on his cheeks and chin.
He was even more handsome than the actor they had playing Brad Ramsey.
And the feel of his long, hard body covering hers...
It was heaven. Pure heaven.
He swept a heated gaze over her face and body before giving her a devilish grin that should belong to the worst sort of Regency rake. Not to mention the fact that his waist was lying between her legs, and she felt a sudden swell pressing against her intimately. One that let her know this was no small man. Nor was he completely uninterested in her.
It was all she could do not to moan in pleasure.
"Hi." The deepness of his voice was as startling as their meeting.
"Hi," she answered back rather lamely.
Kyle tried to remember what the woman had asked him a second ago, but all he could really think of was the peekaboo dimple she had in her left cheek. It flashed at him as she frowned.
Not to mention the fact that she felt damn good underneath him.
Her white tank top had fallen off of one shoulder, leaving it bare where it beckoned him to touch and kiss the smooth skin it revealed.
Her dark brown eyes were warm and friendly with a healthy dose of suspicion in them. She had sleek brown hair that fell around her head, onto the sand. It was the kind of hair a man dreamed of running his hands through. The kind of hair a man liked to feel whipping his chest while the woman who had it sat on top of him, grinding her body against his until they both came.
It took every ounce of control he possessed not to rub his swollen, aching groin against her and dream of sinking himself deep inside her hot, wet body.
Oh, yeah, he so wanted a piece of this woman. One small taste of her lush, soft, feminine curves.
"You...uh...you want to get off me now?" she asked, her voice sounding a bit peeved.
"Not really," he answered honestly. "I kind of like it here." More than he dared admit even to himself.
And he found himself suddenly fixated by the bared skin of her shoulder that didn't seem to betray a bra strap.
Was she naked under there?
His cock tightened even more at the thought of her naked, unrestrained breasts being only a tiny push of fabric away. Of taking one of them into his mouth and suckling its tip while she buried her long, graceful fingers into his hair.
Marianne arched a brow at the man's unexpected response and tilted her head as she watched him. She wasn't sure if this was part of her whole fantasy package or not. What with the explosion and all, it was possible he was one of the actors who had been playing out her novel.
But Rachel Fire hadn't written a scene about a sand castle being blown up.
Then again, there was a scene in a few more days where they blew up a cabin, so maybe the man had been practicing.
At any rate, he was a cutie-pie. Gorgeous in fact. His darkly tanned body held the muscular definition of an athlete. One that begged a woman to run her hands over it.
"You always sweep a woman off her feet like this and throw her on the ground?"
He laughed at that, a warm, rich sound that made her actually tingle. "No, I have to say this is a first. But given how it seems to be turning out, I might make it a habit." He winked at her, then pulled back from her slowly and held his hand out to her as if to shake hers.
"Kyle Foster," he said.
Hmm, not one of the names in the book. Maybe he was one of the extras they had hired to play commando with.
"Marianne Webernec," she said automatically as she shook his large, callused hand and did her best not to think about what it would feel like to have it cup her breast or have those long, masculine fingers sunk deep inside her body.
He had beautiful hands. Powerful hands. Strong and manly, they appealed to her in the best sort of way.
"Oh, wait," she said, trying to distract herself from those thoughts. "I'm supposed to be Ren Winterbourne. Sorry, I keep forgetting."
He scowled at her words. "What are you? A federal agent or something?"
"Something, definitely something." She started to push herself to her feet.
Kyle helped her up with an effortlessness that overcharged her hormones and made her yearn to lean into the strength of his body until she swooned from delight.
What was it about this man that made her want to do him right here on the beach? She'd never been sexually flagrant before, but something about Kyle Foster made her long desperately to rip that tight white T-shirt off and have her way with him whether he wanted it or not.
"You must be from the other side of the island," he said in that innately masculine voice.
He released her all too soon, and she ached from the loss of his body heat being so close. It had warmed her more than the overhead sun.
"Uh-oh. Did I really come all that way? They told me I wasn't supposed to go too far away. Did I end up on the private side of things?"
"Yeah, but it's okay. I'm the only one staying here right now." He glanced around the vacant beach. "It's been boring as hell up until now."
"Tell me about it. For a fantasy vacation, it's been rather meek compared to what I was expecting."
Interest sparked deep in those electric blue eyes. "What were you expecting?"
Marianne squelched a smile. She'd been expecting something along the lines of studly fine Kyle Foster to come into her life and ravish her day and night until she couldn't move, never mind walk.
Marianne bit her bottom lip at the thought and lowered her gaze to the snowy sand to keep him from seeing just how embarrassed she was.
"I don't know," she said with a small shrug. "Some handsome man to throw me down on the ground and save me from an unexpected explosion?"
Kyle laughed again. He didn't know why. Normally, he was about as serious as they came. His sometimes partner, Retter, had often commented on the fact that Kyle's face would freeze if he ever cracked more than a half grin.
But something about this woman made him feel...
Kind of giddy. There was no other word for it. And he really hated that girly-sounding word. Giddy and Kyle Foster went together about like a cobra and a mongoose.
He must have been even more bored than he suspected. She wasn't ravishing or even beautiful. She reminded him of the woman next door.
A woman who shouldn't draw his notice at all, and yet he found himself staring at her and the way her light, tiny freckles kissed the skin across the bridge of her nose.
Even more startling was the desire he had to taste every one of those freckles with his tongue. To kiss and tease each one and see how many more she might have in other, more provocative areas of her body.
Like those creamy thighs that were virtually hidden by her drab tan walking shorts. Thighs that would look much better naked and wrapped around his neck...
Marianne felt suddenly awkward as she realized the T-shirt Kyle wore displayed more of his muscled chest than it concealed. Of course, built the way he was, it would take several layers of sweaters and a heavy overcoat to disguise that body.
He reminded her of a linebacker. One with a very tight end.
He was gorgeous all over. From the top of his sun-kissed dark brown hair to the toes of his scuffed black leather biker boots.
She frowned as she noticed that.
"Who wears boots on the beach?" she asked unexpectedly.
He glanced down at his feet. "I didn't even think about it. Guess it's not normal, huh?"
She smiled up at him. "Says to me you don't spend a lot of time on the beach."
"Not really. I'm here under extreme protest. What about you?"
"I'm this month's winner."
He frowned as if he had no idea what she was talking about.
"You know," she said, "the Hideaway Heroine Sweepstakes winner? I'm the one they chose this time."
"Ah," he said, nodding. "So how's it going?"
Twirling a small section of her hair, she shrugged. "It's going, I guess. South more than north, but I suppose nothing's perfect."
"Now, why would you say that?" He indicated the vibrant blue sky with his thumb. "Just look at that sky. It's perfect. Great day. You got the beach to run around on, the surf sliding up. Hell, you can even hear birds chirping."
"Which is why you were blowing up a sand castle?"
He gave her a guilty smile that made her knees weak. "Well, okay, nothing's perfect."
Marianne licked her lips as she watched him hitch his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans. He had such a manly stance. One of power, like some sinuous beast just prowling the beach waiting for a morsel to gobble.
How she wished she were that morsel.
"So," she said, stretching the word out, "do you do that a lot? Blow up sand castles?"
"Only if they deserve it." He glanced back to the hole in the beach where his sand castle had been. "That one, unfortunately, had gone bad. Real bad."
She covered her face as she laughed again. "I guess I better stay on the straight and narrow then, huh?"
She cringed as she heard the voice of "Brad" coming through the trees from the opposite direction of her uncovered pathway. The actor was extremely handsome, but was pale and rather feminine compared to the man in front of her.
"I guess I need to be going," she said reluctantly.
She started away from Kyle, but he caught her hand in his. The feel of that steely grip on her skin made her entire body burn.
Before she realized what he was doing, he'd pulled her against the hard, lean strength of his body and lowered his mouth onto hers.
Marianne sighed at the taste of his lips as his tongue explored her mouth, flicking masterfully in and out. It made her breathless and weak. She held on to those broad, muscled shoulders as she felt the heat pounding between her legs. Heat that made her wet and desperate for this man.
His muscles flexed beneath her hand, whetting her appetite all the more. How she wished she were touching his tanned skin, sinking her teeth into all that lush, fabulous maleness.
Kyle growled at how good she tasted. But then he'd known instinctively that she would.
His cock hardened to the point of pain as he imagined what it would feel like to lay her down on the beach and spend the next few hours watching her come for him over and over again while he slid himself in and out of her sleek wet heat.
There were few things in life he liked more than the sight of a woman caught in the middle of an orgasm. The sound of her delighted cries as he nibbled and teased the last tremor from her body.
And this was a woman he could savor from now until the end of time....
He didn't want to let her go, but then, he'd never been the kind of guy to perform before an audience, nor did she strike him as the kind of woman who would appreciate him trying to broaden their horizons in that respect.
Reluctantly he released her.
Damn. Kyle didn't say anything as he watched the klutz -- who tripped over the sand castle's crater as he crossed the sand -- take off with his woman.
He glanced at the blackened hole on the beach.
Target number one had been destroyed.
Target number two...
She would have to be conquered.
For the first time in a month he felt the familiar adrenaline rush surging.
At last he had a mission.
Marianne Webernec and her sweet little mouth that had tasted like honey.
One taste and he'd been hooked. And he wasn't the kind of man to leave well enough alone once his curiosity was aroused.
Curiosity hell, his whole body was aroused, and he wouldn't be sated until he'd tasted a whole lot more than her lips.
No way. Before he was through with her, he would know every minute part of her body and every way to make her scream out in pleasure.
Kyle smiled at the lecherous thought.
This was one challenge he was going to savor well.
Copyright © 2003 by Sherrilyn Kenyon
From Let's Talk About Sex, by Liz Carlyle
Hi, this is Let's Talk About Sex!" The polished, professional voice oozed out over the airwaves. "Our next caller is Brian from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Brian, you're on the air with Dr. Delia Sydney."
Inside the glass-walled sound booth, Delia listened through her headphones to Brian's loud, ragged breathing. "Um, yeah," he finally said, huffing the words into his telephone. "Um, is this Dr. Delia?"
"Good afternoon, Brian," said Delia smoothly. "You're our next caller. Did you have a question or a comment?"
"Uh, well, yeah." Brian from Murfreesboro was definitely struggling. "I, like, had this question. I w-wanted to ask, um, about guys. When they, you know, are j-jerking -- "
"Ah, I see," Delia gently interjected. "A question about masturbation?"
"Yeah, that." Brian exhaled too loudly into his telephone again. "Well, uh, anyways, my, um, my uncle told me something one time. About -- er, about it. He said if you did it, you know, a lot, that it could make you go, like, blind or something."
"Well, that's a common old wives' tale," said Delia, speaking calmly into her microphone. "But there's no truth to it, Brian. I expect your uncle was just teasing."
"Um...Dr. Delia, are you sure?"
Delia paused for a split second. "Is masturbation a problem for you, Brian?" she asked coolly. "What I mean is, do you feel guilty about doing it? Because you shouldn't, you know. It is a perfectly natural thing for a healthy young man to do in private. And it isn't anyone else's business."
"Oh, no, I don't do it," said Brian, his voice leaping an octave. "I was, like, you know, just wondering if my uncle was lying. That's all."
"I see." Delia's patience slipped a notch. "Brian, has your uncle gone blind?"
"Then he's lying."
Through the glass wall, she watched Frank grin and jerk a finger across his throat. Time to wrap. Delia pushed her chair back and signaled her sound engineer to disconnect Brian. "And that's all the time we have today for Let's Talk About Sex," she purred into her microphone. "This is Dr. Delia Sydney inviting you to join us on Friday, when my special guest will be sex therapist Dr. Jeffrey Bozner, discussing his newest book, Healthy Sex, Healthy Marriage. Thanks for tuning in."
Through the glass Delia watched her engineer punch a button and toss his headphones. The theme song for All Things Considered trumpeted in her ear. Delia yanked off her headset and shook the kinks out of her hair just as Frank came around the glass partition, making an obscene jerk-off gesture. "Jeez, what a bunch of losers!" His cultivated announcer's voice had vanished. "Where're those sexually frustrated housewives when I need a little thrill, Doc?"
"Frank, you're pathetic." Delia stood and shoved her chair under the desk. "Where's Becky Jo?"
Just then, Delia's assistant came streaking into the sound booth, her wild red hair flying out behind her. "Jeff Bozner's secretary just canceled," said Becky Jo breathlessly. "He's on his way to the hospital. Looks like those triplets are going to put in an early appearance."
"Dang," said Delia.
"And Dr. Despiza called this morning. The department chair says one of you has to take on another Deviance and Development class for spring semester." Becky Jo paused to laugh. "He says he tossed a coin, and you lost."
Delia resorted to cussing. "Well, shit."
"Yeah, well, keep shitting, honey, 'cause it gets worse."
Delia groaned. "Like how?"
Becky Jo snapped her gum. "Perkins just arrived from New York to see you. It's about your contract, and Delia darlin', he's got that tight, poker-assed look on his face again."
Frank shoved his face between them. "Aw, my heart bleeds for you, Doc," he said, far too cheerfully. "Well, gotta jet, girls. I'm late for a scorching hot lunch date."
"Where?" shot Becky Jo. "Down at the Fuzzy Beaver Club?"
"Yeah, you're a laugh a minute, Becky Jo," said Frank, slipping out the door.
"But what about my syndication?" wailed Delia, oblivious. "We're in eight of the top markets now. My God, today we had a caller from Kalamazoo!"
Becky Jo pursed her lips. "Perkins doesn't give a rat's ass, Delia, I'm telling you. You won't get another nickel out of that cheapskate until your listener numbers firm up -- and then only if you pitch a fit."
"But how much longer will that take?"
"You'll have to ask Perkins." Becky Jo laid a cool hand on her shoulder. "Sorry, hon."
Shit. Shit. Shit. Delia closed her eyes and watched her new S80 sedan disappear into the dreamland whence it had come. Black. It was going to have been black. With a turbocharged engine, dynamic stability control, and seventeen-inch aluminum alloy wheels. A symbol of her thrilling new non-station-wagon lifestyle.
Oh, hell, who was she kidding? Her new lifestyle was a fantasy. She barely had time for what was left of her old one. But she needed a new car badly. In the last three months she'd been stranded on the I-40 median about a dozen times, and her old station wagon was belching smoke like a Blackhawk with its tail shot off.
Somehow the image of war steeled her. For once in her life, Delia wasn't giving up without a fight. Today she would fire her first salvo in what was doubtless destined to be a long and tiresome battle. But Perkins was up against a desperate woman.
"Becky Jo," she said, jerking up her briefcase and heading for the door. "I am woman, hear me roar. And this woman has got to have a new car."
Fleetingly, Becky Jo hesitated. "Well, alrighty, then!" she finally said. "You go, girl."
Of course, her meeting with the weasely Perkins was less than satisfactory. The show was too new, he'd whined. They were still building listeners and assessing programming options. More money was out of the question just now. Perhaps they'd talk further in a couple of months?
Under her breath Delia said screw it, and left early. So it was not quite five in the afternoon when she coaxed her antique Volvo station wagon down Westwind Drive, the street that skirted the edge of exclusive Hidden Lakes Estates. Through the canopy of trees blazing red and gold, the Carolina sun dappled and shifted across her dashboard. In Durham the weather was still glorious, though the calendar said October. At the security gate she turned right, waved to the uniformed guard, and eased forward to let the scanner read the bar code on her back window. The gate buzzed up, the guard saluted, and Delia rolled through.
The first half-mile of Greenway Circle snaked between a row of five-bedroom architectural monstrosities and the subdivision's golf course. Delia shoved the wagon into second and chugged along at the mandatory fifteen miles per hour. Here in exclusive Hidden Lakes, it was considered a gross act of ill breeding to speed near the greens, thereby endangering the lives of the club's well-heeled, well-insured members. A humiliating letter from the Hidden Lakes Homeowners' Association was reportedly the penalty, but Delia had always harbored the sneaking suspicion that the association probably just burnt a cross made of old three-woods on your lawn.
Near the twelfth hole a trio of thin blondes lingered around a sand trap, their cute, clubby clothes simply screaming Talbot's. At the sound of Delia's old car rumbling past, the trio turned and gave her one of those long, old-Carolina-money looks, as if doubting she belonged. Or was she was just imagining it? The women had already turned back to their sand trap.
But she didn't belong, did she? Fate, in the maddening form of her ex-husband Neville, had dropped her into the middle of Hidden Lakes, then abandoned her, leaving her to feel like an alien whose spaceship had crashed into some foreign landscape. Delia lifted her chin and drove on, swearing for about the twelfth time that next month she would put the damned house up for sale. She would get the carpets cleaned, the windows washed, the closets emptied; all those chores she hadn't been able to find time for this past year were now essential to make the house look pristine and virginal for its next happy mortgage holder. And oh, what a mortgage it was. Neville might have been a brilliant plastic surgeon, but he'd apparently flunked Math 101.
At the foot of her steep driveway, Delia noticed a Southern Power and Light truck parked a few yards up the street. Ignoring it, she jerked open the mailbox, fished out another pile of bills, and tried not to cry. Then she shoved the gearshift into first, tapped the gas, and prayed the station wagon wouldn't stall out. It didn't. She nosed gently over the hill, hit the garage remote, and...nothing. Delia cranked down her window, leaned out to listen, and punched it again. Nothing. Well, just an awful, impotent grinding noise. Damn. First the car, now the garage?
Delia jerked the remote off her visor and started to hurl it into the rhododendron. Just then, deep in the backyard, something caught her eye. A big, bright orange Husqvarna chainsaw. Her elderly neighbor, Bud Basham, stood on the rock outcropping above her flower beds, brandishing the thing like a lunatic. Two SP&L utility workers, one male, one female, stood in Delia's backyard, their hands on their hips, shouting up at Bud.
The first worker held a ten-foot pole pruner, the second a clipboard. Behind them stood a broad-shouldered man in a blue blazer, his feet spread wide, his expression of exasperation plain even fifty yards away. He was waving his hands and telling them to calm down and shut the hell up. Bud, who'd never been the passive type, responded by raising his arms high above his head and revving the chainsaw for all she was worth. The Husqvarna roared and popped like a nest of angry hornets.
Curious, Delia cut the ignition. Unfortunately, the old Volvo chose that moment to backfire. The explosion ricocheted off the garage door like a shotgun blast, and all hell erupted. The woman from SP&L screamed and hit the deck. As if acting on instinct, Mr. Blue Blazer hurled his body protectively over hers. Bud dropped the chainsaw, sending it clattering and sputtering down the rocks. The second utility worker chucked his pruner and bolted for cover. Then realization hit, and everyone froze, as if some sitcom director had just yelled "Cut!"
Wincing, Delia shoved open her car door with a rusty creak and crawled halfway out. By the time she opened her eyes, Mr. Blue Blazer was already up and helping the utility worker to her feet. "Sorry!" shouted Delia into the backyard. "Bad timing."
The running utility worker stopped short, his face flushed with embarrassment. Delia slammed the car door and strode past him. Then she saw it. Her lush row of pine trees was now little more than a line of stumps. Heaps of green foliage lay along the back edge of her property, and the tang of evergreen was sharp in her nostrils. Horrified, Delia just kept walking, right past the indignant Mr. Blue Blazer, all the way to the property line.
Delia pressed her hand to her chest. "My trees!" she cried. "Good Lord, what happened to my trees?"
"I tried to tell 'em, Delia!" crowed Bud Basham, the wattle at his neck quivering with indignation as he clambered down after his saw. "Told 'em you'd be mad as hell! And I told 'em they weren't coming up here! I saw that young whippersnapper there take his pruner to my junipers -- and by gum, I put a stop to it!"
The female utility worker stepped forward. "Your trees were in the subdivision's greenspace, ma'am," she said, still dusting grass off her uniform. "SP&L has a right-of-way through there, and we're clearing trees back off the power lines. We have to, ma'am. It's a new company policy."
Delia turned and looked at her incredulously. "Clearing back?" she cried. "But they...they've been murdered!"
The woman shrugged, but her expression was not unsympathetic. "They've decided it's cheaper to cut them down, ma'am, than to trim them back every year," she said gently. "Folks threw such fits after losing power during the ice storm last year, SP&L has no choice. It's the new policy, just started this week."
Delia had been lecturing on the West Coast during last winter's ice storm, but she still recalled hearing of the horror her neighbors had suffered. Heavy trees had torn down utility lines across the state, and in Durham, many had gone a week without electricity or heat. Candles, propane, and bottled water vanished from store shelves. SP&L had been overwhelmed. People had been outraged.
"I see," murmured Delia, looking at Mr. Blue Blazer, whose expression had gone from exasperated to truly pissed. Boldly she thrust out her hand. "I don't think I've had the pleasure," she said sweetly. "Delia Sydney. Sorry about the car. I think it needs a tune-up."
"Yeah, or euthanasia," he suggested in a slow, Deep South drawl. Lazily he lifted one hand to push a shock of dark hair off his face. It was then that Delia noticed the gun, a big chunk of lethal-looking black steel, poking out of a shoulder holster beneath his coat.
"You planning to shoot it and put me out of my misery?" she asked, lifting one brow. "Or do you carry that just for looks?"
His hard mouth softened, and he took her still-extended hand. "Nick Woodruff," he growled. "Sergeant Nick Woodruff. I live behind you." He jerked his head toward the butchered evergreens. "On Westwind."
Westwind Drive was a pretty street that led past Hidden Lakes' grand entrance, but definitely wasn't part of it. For the first time, Delia actually looked at the property that backed onto hers. Nick Woodruff lived in a rambling, rustic house on a huge lot randomly dotted with oak, pine, and mounds of azaleas rather than the perfectly placed, artificially irrigated landscaping of Hidden Lakes.
Now that the thick foliage was gone, Delia could make out the long, narrow lap pool that edged Woodruff's back porch, and the hot tub that sat adjacent. Closer to her property line stood some sort of workshop, part of it open on two sides, where Woodruff appeared to be in the process of gutting a small red sports car. A mountain of firewood sat nearby -- the real stuff, too, not those prissy little plastic-wrapped packages from Kroger.
"Look, Mr. Basham," drawled Woodruff, nudging Delia back into the present. "Eventually you're going to have to let these utility people do their job."
Bud was now cradling the battered orange chainsaw as if it were his favorite grandchild. "Not today, Nick," he said in an unrepentant tone.
Woodruff shrugged, as if his big black gun were chafing him. "Well, it's almost quitting time," he said with authority. "You folks go on back to SP&L, and tell 'em somebody's gotta explain this policy. I'm real sorry for what happened today, but they can't just go sending you folks out with no word or warning."
The utility workers shrugged, hefted up a couple of serious-looking power tools, and headed for their truck. The excitement over, Bud Basham trudged back up the hill with his chainsaw. Delia shrugged, too. To hell with the dead pines. Like the house itself, the trees had been Neville's idea. He'd demanded the real estate developer install them, to shield them from the "riffraff" he'd been sure resided on Westwind Drive. Now the sight of Neville's evergreens hacked down to oozing little nubs was giving Delia a perverse sort of pleasure.
Beside her, Nick Woodruff cleared his throat, and suddenly Delia realized she was alone with the riffraff in question, a big, surly-looking neighbor whom she'd never bothered to meet. "So, Dr. Delia," he drawled. "At last we meet."
So he knew who she was. Delia felt a stab of irritation. People always seized on her radio persona, when in reality, she also worked as an assistant professor of psychology, collaborated on research projects at half the Ivy League, and had co-authored two textbooks. But then, Woodruff didn't look like the academic type.
"Hey, I want to thank you for calming Bud down," she said, trying to sound gracious. "He has a bad temper but a good heart."
Woodruff snorted. "He's a crazy old coot, is what he is," he answered. "But I keep an eye out for him."
Delia tried to smile. "Did you begin as an innocent bystander?"
Woodruff nodded. "Just coming home from the office. I could hear Basham bellowing from my mailbox."
"So you're a cop, huh?"
Woodruff seemed to scowl. "SBI. In Raleigh."
State Bureau of Investigation. "Oh," said Delia. "I've done some work for them."
Woodruff's brows went up at that. "Yeah?"
Delia smiled tightly. "A serial rapist case down in Charlotte last year," she said. "They needed some of my research on the behavior of sexual predators in court. And I got my face plastered all over cable TV in the process. It was pretty awful."
Woodruff grunted. "Not much of a topic for a radio talk show, either."
Delia looked up at him. Way up, as it happened, since Woodruff probably stood six-two in his big, bare feet. "No, it certainly isn't."
He looked over his shoulder at his house as if impatient to be gone. "Well, looks like my work here is done, Dr. Delia," he said, backing away. "Sorry I couldn't save your fancy landscaping. I know you folks in Hidden Lakes like your privacy."
Delia caught the hint of sarcasm in his tone, and it inflamed her. "Not a problem," she said sweetly. "I'm moving. But I hope you like your new neighbors, Mr. Woodruff, because they'll have one hell of a view of your hot tub."
She watched Woodruff's eyes flash and his jaw clench. Then Delia tossed him a cheerful wave and turned toward her house.
For Delia, Friday's edition of Let's Talk About Sex turned out to be a hellish nightmare. At least ten calls came in for the absent Dr. Bozner, whose book had just hit The New York Times best-seller list, and who would have been a hot property had he actually shown up. The remaining callers turned out to be cranks, creeps, and perverts. Delia liked her new radio show, she really did. And she thought she could make a difference in people's lives by bringing topics like sexually transmitted disease and healthy physical relationships out of the closet and onto the airwaves. But sometimes Frank did a piss-poor job of weeding out the weirdos before sending the calls through.
After work Delia drove down to the bank to transfer money from her fast-dwindling savings account. She'd added up her growing pile of bills after waving goodbye to the cheerful Mr. Woodruff on Wednesday and realized that, as usual, there was just too much month left at the end of her money. Once parked, Delia shoved in the clutch and stared at the glistening plate-glass door. She hated having to visit the bank again. Hated being twenty-nine years old and still burdened with a staggering student loan, not to mention a big, ugly house she'd never really wanted. Just then, as if to lengthen her list of woes, the Volvo shuddered, belched, and died.
Delia let her head fall forward onto the steering wheel. Well, it's your own fault! she could hear her mother carping. You were a fool to sign that prenuptial agreement. A man should support his wife, Delia, not impoverish her.
Oh, her parents been thrilled when she'd married a doctor. Now they thought she was proud, stubborn, and foolish. But Delia had wanted a marriage, not a meal ticket. She had wanted children, a real family, and she had wanted to build her own career. And although Neville had changed his mind about the children, she'd succeeded with her career. Her income was barely a third of her ex-husband's, but it was enough to live well on.
Soon the house would be sold, and they would split the equity. Then Delia's dreams of a new car and a new condo would come true. On that somewhat consoling thought, Delia got out of her car, but at that very instant the bank's shiny glass door swung open, and Neville's new wife walked out, her long blond hair swinging.
Alicia was tall, tan, and totally oblivious to Delia's presence. Lifting her face to the sun, Alicia slid on a pair of cat-eyed Oakley sunglasses which had probably cost more than Delia's car was worth, then beeped open the door to an olive-green Jaguar XK8 convertible. The car roared to life, then swung deftly into the traffic flow, leaving Delia behind, a little heartbroken.
Yes, there was a lot about Alicia to envy. And this time it was more than just her hair and her car. Delia had been unable to miss the flowing, baby-blue tunic the new Mrs. Sydney had been wearing over her slim spandex slacks. No mistaking the slight swell of her tummy. And this time it wasn't the sort of plumpness old Neville could liposuction off. Well! So much for Neville's old complaint about pregnancy ruining a woman's figure. No wonder he'd rushed to the altar.
Oh, to hell with Neville and her banking. Everything would just have to wait until Monday. Weary and discouraged, Delia crawled back in the Volvo, said a prayer, and cranked the engine. It gagged and sputtered, but she made it out of the parking lot. In fact, she made it all the way across town, all the way out I-40, and almost -- almost -- all the way down Westwind. And then, only a quarter-mile shy of the Hidden Lakes entrance, it began wheezing again. Delia let off the gas, wondering if she could coast to the security gate.
Nope. The Volvo went into death throes and spasmed its way only as far as a long, tree-lined driveway on her right, then promptly died. Delia was still trying desperately to start the car when a black Silverado pickup came flying down the drive backward. It was definitely one of life's Oh, shit moments. Frantic, she turned the key again as the Silverado's backup lights got bigger and bigger and bigger. Jesus Christ, isn't he even going to look?
Then, at the very last instant, the truck's brakes locked up, and the black beast skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust and dead leaves. Embarrassed, Delia got out of the station wagon just as a big, broad-shouldered man in a pair of baggy Adidas shorts climbed out of the Silverado. He stood in the dust cloud, his hands lifted expressively in one of those What the fuck? gestures. Delia's embarrassment quickly shifted to total humiliation when the dust cleared.
Feeling a little sick, she shifted her gaze past the Silverado. Yep, there it was, her big ugly house, just visible through Woodruff's tree-filled yard. Funny how she'd never bothered to look before. And man, oh, man, was she ever going to pay for that bitchy parting shot two days ago. His expression made that abundantly clear.
Woodruff stood in front of the Volvo now, hands on his hips. "Well, Dr. Delia," he snapped, "we meet again."
Delia bit her lip. "I'm sorry," she said. "It just sort of died here."
Nick made a sweeping gesture at the road. "Well, kick it out of gear and drift it out of my driveway, honey," he growled. "Because I'm late for pickup basketball, and believe me, I need the exercise bad."
Delia opened her mouth to tell the big ox to go screw himself, but nothing came out. Instead, she felt herself start to crumple inside. What else could possibly go wrong with her day?
Nick Woodruff wanted to bite back his spiteful words almost as soon as they left his mouth. Almost, because it took him a couple of seconds to realize that those really were tears pooling in Delia Sydney's silvery blue eyes. Suddenly Nick was halfway glad his mama was dead. Because if she'd been living, she'd have laid a hickory switch to his butt, and no maybe about it. However rich and snooty Delia Sydney might be, she was a lady in distress. And she was also wearing very wicked shoes.
"Hey, look, Doc, I'm sorry," he said, slipping his fingers into the crack beneath the Volvo's hood. "I've had a couple of real bad days at work, and my fuse is short. I'm not usually such a jerk."
"Well, jeez, I'm sorry I broke down!" Her face pale, Delia Sydney circled around the car. "Wh-what are you doing?"
Nick found the latch, popped it, and shoved the hood up. "Let me have a look," he said. "I reckon I can miss a ball game."
"Oh, heaven forbid!" she said stiffly. "Just give me a push, and I'll call the auto club from my cell phone."
In response he shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Hey, Doc, it's okay," he said quietly. "I'm a shade-tree mechanic. So what's up with it? Need a tune-up?"
At that, her anger seemed to melt, and she poked absently at a little rock with the sharply pointed toe of her black high heel. "Well, what I need is a new car," she said, sighing. "But that's not going to happen until I can get the house sold. So, yes, I need a tune-up. Probably a complete overhaul. I never know whether to believe what the mechanics tell me."
Nick let his eyes run over the filthy engine. "You really selling out?"
Delia exhaled. "I've been meaning to, yes," she admitted. "But the last few months have been hell. I teach and travel a lot. So it seemed easier to just write the mortgage check and hang in, but the truth is, I hate that house. And I can't afford it, either."
Nick tried not to look skeptical. "You're Neville Sydney's wife, right?"
"Ex-wife," she answered, a little too quickly.
Nick narrowed his eyes and stared into the afternoon sun. He was trying not to feel sorry for Delia Sydney. But he did, and he couldn't help it. Her guard was down, and despite her snug black suit and perfectly coiffed hair, she was starting to look young and vulnerable. Worse, he was starting to get the uncomfortable feeling that she was neither rich nor uppity. In fact, she seemed real nice. And awfully pretty. Then there were those shoes, shoes that made a man think of kinky, erotically painful things.
Jesus. Nick rolled his shoulders, trying to relax. Trying to stop looking at her shoes. But his shame was deepening over his mean-spirited words. It sure wasn't Delia Sydney's fault that his day had been total shit. The least he could do was help her out of a jam.
"So," he finally said. "Let's see if we can coax this rattletrap 'round back of my house, Dr. Delia. I just started a two-week vacation, so I can tune up your car."
Delia was dumbstruck. "But you...you don't know me. Your family -- you must have plans?"
Woodruff's eyes raked over her. "No, I don't know you," he admitted in a voice that was just a note lower, but a good deal warmer. "And I don't have any family. Not here, anyway. And my vacation, well, let's just say it was unexpected."
Delia didn't know what to think. The cost of an engine overhaul would probably be three times what the car was worth -- if it was even needed. But this man, this very large, very virile-looking stranger, was offering to work on it as a favor? She looked at him suspiciously. "Now, why would you want to spend part of your vacation working on my car, Mr. Woodruff?"
Finally he laughed, a rich, sexy laugh that came from somewhere deep in his chest. "Because idle hands do the devil's work, Dr. Delia," he said, holding his palms out as if for inspection. "That's what my Granny Woodruff says."
The devil's work. The words were vaguely fascinating, the hands more so. Woodruff's palms were broad, the fingers long and blunt. One thumb had a bruised nail, and on his left index finger, a scar ran from the first knuckle into the callused heel, the suture marks painfully visible. They were a worker's hands. A warrior's hands.
Jesus, she was getting fanciful. Still, there was no denying Woodruff was a fine example of manhood, if you preferred your men...well, a bit primitive. Delia swallowed hard, tore her gaze from his hands, and focused -- rather imprudently -- in the general direction of his hot tub. What do you suppose a man like that looked like with his clothes off?
"So, Dr. Delia, what do you say?" asked Woodruff, his voice suggestively low. "Wanna let me poke around under your hood?"
Delia felt herself turn pink right down to her toes.
Woodruff made a little choking sound in the back of his throat. "Jeez, Doc, you're blushing," he muttered. "Give me a break."
"I'm not blushing," Delia lied. "I'm -- it's -- hot out here. And frankly, Mr. Woodruff, I've had kind of a crappy week. Look at my pine trees. They're shaved down to bloody nubs. On top of that, my boss is a jerk and my car won't run. I barely avoided a bad remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My ex-husband's new wife almost ran me down in her brand-new Jaguar. And -- oh, let's not forget this -- half the perverts on the East Coast called me up to chat this afternoon."
Woodruff flashed a sudden, sexy grin. "Oh, yeah, that Doris Jean from St. Augustine was one scary chick," he remarked, shaking his head. "Where do people get that kind of bondage gear, anyway? Sadomasochists-R-Us?"
Delia's blush deepened and she swiftly dropped her gaze. "You...you're...a fan?"
Nick Woodruff was casually tossing his car keys now. "Oh, yeah, Dr. Delia," he answered smoothly. "A big one. A real big one."
It was only then that Delia realized just where her gaze had landed. She was staring straight at Nick Woodruff's crotch.
Copyright © 2003 by Liz Carlyle
From The Nekkid Truth, by Nicole Camden
My cell phone rang just as my date for the evening leaned over to kiss me. I was tempted to ignore it (the phone, not the lips). I hadn't gotten kissed in a while and felt like grabbing the first handsome man I saw and engaging in a serious lip lock. But since the police had an uncanny knack of calling me when it was most inconvenient, I figured it had to be them.
I was right.
"Debbie here," I answered.
"Debbie, it's Jakes. Detective Scott needs you to come down and shoot a crime scene for us."
"Oh, he does, huh? What happened to your regular guy?"
"He's at the doctor getting his ingrown toenails operated on."
"A little too much information there, Jakes." I sighed. "Okay. Where is it?"
"Over by Buena Vista Lagoon."
"Great," I muttered, and asked him where exactly. The lagoon wasn't exactly small. "Okay. I'll be there in ten," I said when he finished, and hung up.
John, my date, whom I privately call "Freckle Dick," was none too happy about calling off the party for the evening. He was a college basketball student, tall, milk-pale, gorgeous. He'd been a model for a photo shoot of mine a few weeks ago, and I'd been seeing him off and on since then. He probably thought tonight was his chance to score.
"They're front-row tickets, Debbie. Can't they get somebody else?"
I pushed his hand off my thigh. "Trust me, John, if the detective in charge could get someone else, he would have. Besides, I'm sure there are plenty of girls back at the dorm who would love to go out with you."
"Nobody like you," he murmured, leaning over to nibble my ear. Ah, younger men.
"Just take me to the lagoon."
He complied sullenly, as boys are wont to do. The drive from John's driveway in Oceanside to the backstreets where homes gave way to the lagoon didn't take long, though I got lost trying to find the crime scene after he dropped me off. I had no idea what kind of waterfowl refuge the smelly, muddy, bug-infested bog was supposed to be, but it pretty much proved my theory that I would've been a lousy wildlife photographer.
With my camera heavy around my neck and my three-inch heels sinking four inches deep with every step, it was little wonder I was cursing as I limped toward a group of people knotted together near the edge of the water. Most of them looked like cops, but there were a few civilians thrown in for color.
"Over here, Miss Valley," said a voice in the deep Southern drawl that always made me think of hot, sweaty sex. Detective Scott, of course. He had a habit of calling out to me when I showed up so that I'd know who he was right away. I appreciated the courtesy. I know it's tough to believe, but even though I had been working with him for four years, and lusting after him almost as long, I was rarely able to pick him out of a crowd.
It had nothing to do with him. He was six three, wide across the chest, with thick brown hair and arms that looked strong enough to lift small cars. Most women met him once and made a point of seeking him out in bars, at the station, in the men's room at the station. I'd seen it happen. Not on purpose, mind you, I was just walking by.
I, on the other hand, would always have trouble recognizing him. Him and everyone else.
I suppose I was lucky. Five years ago, when his previous partner, Bruce Johnson, lost control of their patrol car and knocked me headfirst into the pavement on Coast Highway, the doctors said that by rights I should've been dead or at least brain damaged. Instead, I just lost the ability to recognize faces.
No one ever really understands what I mean by that, even most of my doctors, but after several months of tests they finally came to the conclusion that whatever spark or synapse that allows humans to recognize other humans was busted in me. It's not like I look at someone and see those fuzzy blotches they put in front of people on TV. It's more complex than that. The way they explain it in psychology books is to show someone two upside-down pictures. One is of someone famous like Madonna, the other is a hugely distorted picture of someone with similar coloring. Nine times out of ten a normal person can't distinguish one from the other while the photo is upside down. Well, I'm like that all the time. I can see someone's features and even mark them if they have a really beaky nose or a strange birthmark, but it's like I'm looking out into a sea of strangers. Not even people I've known my whole life stand out in any way. Cops understand better than most people. They see something similar whenever they ask a white witness to ID a nonwhite suspect.
It's a stupid disability and for a while it really fucked me up, but all it takes is one look at something like the crime scene laid out before me to realize that while I may not have been handed the best deal on the planet, it could've been a helluva lot worse.
The man's naked body was lying half in, half out of the algae-covered water. I lifted my camera and took a shot automatically, using a low flash and high-speed film since the haze had never quite managed to burn off that day. He lay on his back, skin marble pale, face missing from what I guessed was a gunshot. I didn't even blink.
A field evidence technician was standing near the body. He pointed glove-covered fingers at a couple things he wanted me to shoot: the position of the body relative to the water, grooves in the soft muck where the body had been dragged. Then he left me alone to photograph the body as I'd been trained.
I'd been taking photographs of crime scenes for the police since I'd recovered from my little accident. Detective Scott had gotten me the job (out of guilt, I think); Lord knew I wasn't a great photographer back then. I am now. My current photography is celebrated, some might say worshiped, though if you ask me, it's the subject matter and not the pictures that inspire devotion.
I keep working for the police, partly because I like them, partly because I feel strangely that my surviving the accident means that I should repay the cosmos in some way, and taking pictures of crime scenes is one way to do that.
"Miss Valley, you might want to watch that skirt. You're giving the boys a show," Detective Scott said from somewhere above me.
"Let her be, Marshall. This is the better than Playboy!" one of the men shouted. Have I mentioned that I love cops?
I had just squatted down -- awkwardly, I admit (a crime scene is not place for a miniskirt and high heels) -- to place a quarter next to a strangely familiar tattoo high on the victim's inner thigh. I didn't have my ruler and I needed a scale comparison. "Then tell the boys not to look. I have to squat if I'm going to get this shot, and there's no ladylike way to do that." I hadn't looked away from the viewfinder to reply, but at his muttered curse I turned my head. I was eye-level with the crotch of his jeans, and wonder of all wonders, the little detective looked happy about something.
Since he wasn't gay or a necrophiliac (as far as I knew) and the only things for him to look at were (a) a dead body, (b) a bunch of birds and water, (c) other cops, and (d) my Lycra-covered ass, I naturally assumed that the good detective liked me more than he let on. Of course, I was probably wrong. I mean, if the man wanted me, he could've had me anytime in the past five years, and don't doubt that caused me more than a little irritation.
Just to annoy him, I made sure to plant my feet and bend from the waist on the next shot. A wolf whistle came from somewhere behind me, and I sensed Scott moving around to block the view of my butt from the rest of the men. A chorus of boos erupted from my fans, and Scott conceded defeat, walking off to interrogate the old woman who'd found the body. I went back to shooting the scene. If they won't be seduced, they can be annoyed. That's my motto.
He was still talking to the woman when I finally finished up. It was going to take forever to develop and print the film, and I wanted to get home and get started. I usually used my digital camera for the police photos, but I'd been shooting with my old Nikon FE2 earlier that day and had taken the digital out to make room in my bag.
I rooted around in said bag for more film, pulling out a canister of black-and-white. I loaded it quickly, wondering what the hell was taking Scott so long; he was usually Mr. Efficient, which I mocked but secretly admired. I had noticed over the years that when he set out to do something, it got done, no whining, no hemming and hawing, no "what do you think we should do?" I've dated enough since the accident to say unequivocally that if a man isn't willing to say what he wants for dinner, then he's not the man for me. I'd rather argue about it than second-guess him all night long.
It didn't take long to figure out what the delay was all about. Scott's back was to me, so I didn't notice what he was doing, but it turned out that the woman was deaf, and Scott was speaking to her in sign language. I was shocked. I mean, who would've guessed the man knew sign language?
I found myself staring at his hands as he moved them in the graceful, almost magical gestures that communicated thought without sound. Not consciously thinking about it, I began taking pictures, zooming in on his hands. They were long fingered, wide palmed, callused, and scarred. If the Lady of the Swamp had suddenly appeared and offered to grant me one wish, it would've been to have that man's hands on my body.
I got my wish a few minutes later, when those fingers clamped onto my elbow and steered me in the direction of his shiny gray truck. "I'll take you home now," he said loudly, for the benefit of our audience.
"Why, thank you, Detective," I said in my best breathy Marilyn Monroe imitation, which made the guys laugh, but only garnered a frown from the repressive detective. He hustled me to his truck, holding my door open while I climbed inside.
Now, I'm not the best at reading faces (for obvious reasons), but I can watch the direction of a man's eyes, and his ran the length of my legs before he closed the door.
We didn't say much on the way to my house. I asked him where Stevens, his partner, was, and he muttered that he'd had a dentist appointment. He refused to talk about the case, and only grunted in response to small talk, but I was still very cheerful as I waved goodbye to him from the steps of my house. You see, having seen the earlier evidence of his desire, I took the liberty of inspecting his lap as he got into the truck.
A leg and ass man. Not what I expected, but then, he's never failed to surprise me.
Copyright © 2003 by Nicole Camden