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By Calista Fox
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Calista Fox
All rights reserved.
"That was the absolute best chimichanga ever," said Grace Hart, an attractive brunette I wasn't quite dating, but the potential existed. If I'd man up and go for it.
"You should have tried the machaca beef enchiladas," I told her.
"No way." She shook her head as we left El Rincon in the upscale Mexican village–styled shopping conglomerate of Tlaquepaque in Sedona. There were restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries all set on the bank of Oak Creek. "I wasn't willing to give up a single bite of my dish for yours. Thank you very much for offering, but ... holy cow. That was a fantastic meal."
Meg Aldridge chimed in, saying, "Come on now, peeps. Nothing beats the shrimp rellenos." She was a perky blonde who'd married my good friend and Sun Devils teammate, Sean, two years ago. I'd met both Grace and Ari because of the Delfino-Aldridge event. Grace was the bartender at the resort's lounge. Ari had orchestrated the grandiose affair.
With a scoff, Sean told his wife, "Woman, seriously. Nothing goes with El Rincon margaritas like the chicken fajitas."
"Sorry you only got to have one marg, baby," Meg said, sounding the tiniest bit tipsy. She linked her arm with her husband's. Probably to steady herself as much as to flirt. "But I'm making up for lost time after carrying your daughter for nine months and then breastfeeding. I deserve a designated driver this evening."
"As soon as you've got the party bug out of your system, I want a son to go along with that beautiful little girl you gave me."
"Ah, you say the sweetest things." Meg beamed up at him.
I resisted the urge to heave.
They were so in love. Like, stars-in-the-eyes, over-the-moon in love.
I shared a smirk with Grace as we all left the restaurant and traveled the walkway comprising the side entrance of the village.
Sean pulled up short just before we all spilled into the narrow alley leading to the parking lot.
The four of us stared at the ostentatious, butter-colored Bentley blocking the right-side lane.
"Who's the douche?" Sean uncouthly blurted. "Like, can't find a spot close enough for your privileged ass? Can't walk the twenty feet from the actual parking lot?"
Grace and I laughed.
Meg snuggled closer to Sean. "Honey, there's no valet here. Some people find that offensive."
"Your dad's worth billions," he countered. "I didn't hear you telling me to drop you at the door so that you didn't have to put any effort into getting to those margaritas."
"That's because I'm not a douche." She giggled at her little joke. "You will, however, get an earful if we're still standing here when the rain starts."
It was August — late monsoon season in Arizona. The dark clouds had rolled in while we were all at happy hour. Dry lightning crackled overhead, and flashes of purple and gold rippled across the night sky.
"Think that tank I drive will fit through this alley with the Bentley?" Sean asked me.
I gauged the space as we walked toward the back lot. "Just barely. Take it slow."
He snorted. "Not much choice there. It's an Excursion, not my 'Stang."
Sean had achieved the ultimate in family planning, I'd decided, when he'd traded in his classic, restored '641/2 Mustang for the mammoth SUV. He and Meg were all prepared for at least three more kids to go with the first one. Soccertot parents to the extreme.
While they were perfectly suited for the Brady Bunch lifestyle, it pretty much blew my mind. I was nowhere near the point of considering a wife and children. Hell, I had enough trouble committing to asking Grace on a real date.
It had nothing to do with Ari. Although I still adored her to pieces, that infatuation was, indeed, long over.
And damn, Grace Hart really was a pretty woman. My age, twenty-four. She'd been born and raised in Sedona and wasn't interested in living anywhere else. We were on the same page with that. It was a small, intimate community with spectacular views around every corner.
We had plenty of other things in common. Yet there was a peculiar itch at the back of my brain that caused me to hesitate every time I considered making our occasional outings more official — along the lines of picking her up at her place and kissing her senseless at the end of the evening.
The truth was, I was waiting for something elusive. For my own lightning to strike.
Until it did, I played it cool. Walked Grace to her car, where we parted ways with our friends. Meg gave me a hug and I did the manly handshake thing with Sean before they continued on toward the tank.
Grace unlocked her Prius with the fob and I opened the door for her.
"I had fun," she told me.
"Your bar stories always have us on the floor. Seriously, some of the shit you deal with is a riot."
"Keeps me amused while I'm on the clock." Gazing up at me with noticeable admiration, she said, "After all you've been through, I'm glad I can make you laugh."
Grace and the Aldridges were among just a handful of people who knew the full extent of Dane and Ari having been targeted by some assholes who'd wanted a slice of the Lux pie — and had been more than willing to blow a hole in the hotel to prove their point. At Dane's insistence, Ari had a bodyguard, Amano. But I'd also stepped in when needed to help keep her safe. I'd incurred some battle scars from that perilous stint that weren't just physical, but at least we'd all survived.
Now, as a full-fledged bodyguard, my job was to protect her son, Amsel, and manage security at the Lux with Amano.
I told Grace, "It's much-smoother sailing of late."
"I'm so happy to hear that." She stretched on tiptoe and gave me a peck on the cheek. Smiled sweetly. "I like hanging with you, Meg, and Sean. Invite me again?"
With a nod, I said, "Two weeks from tonight."
"I've got the day shift on Fridays, so that's perfect."
These get-togethers worked out well, because we all typically came from different directions — me from the Lux in this particular case, since Amano was looking after Amsel while Ari marathon-shopped on the Internet for the kid's first birthday party a week from now.
I wasn't sure if she'd invited Grace to the upcoming festivities, so I didn't mention the reason for pushing out the next group happy hour.
Grace peered at me from under her lashes and added, "You can always stop into the resort, you know. I make a mean martini."
"I bet you do," I said with a low laugh. "I'll see what I can do with my schedule."
"Lots to juggle. I understand." She slipped into the driver's seat. Gave me one last hopeful look that sort of gutted me because she was clearly interested in more than I was capable of giving at the moment. She told me, "You're really an incredible person, Kyle. Dane and Ari are lucky to have you in their lives and on their side."
"I'm damn lucky, too. Now ... be safe."
She cocked her head. "Forever the bodyguard." Grace was neither a danger magnet nor a thrill-seeker. Perhaps that was also what gave me pause when it came to pursuing anything serious with her. I thrived on adrenaline rushes.
"Okay," I ventured. "Drive carefully. How's that?"
"Better. That's what normal people say."
Since hooking up with the Bax crew two years ago, I now knew very little about being normal. I was used to thinking on my feet, watching every shadow, looking over my shoulder — and the shoulders of those I protected.
I closed Grace's door and she started the car. I backtracked to my Rubicon while she maneuvered down the partially blocked alley. Fat drops splashed on my windshield as I cranked the key in the ignition of the Jeep. It was a bit older, dark blue, a few scratches and dings. I certainly could afford to buy something swankier, something brand new, what with Dane and Ari surprising me by giving me stock in the multibillion-dollar Lux for my dedication to their cause. But the rugged vehicle suited me, and it was tried and true. Trusted. All traits I valued in people as much as in my ride.
My friends were long gone as I navigated the narrow passage, shooting a glare at the Bentley. Just as I returned my attention to the road ahead of me, I caught a flash of mile-long legs and silky blond hair. She was looking the other way, since that was the direction from which she'd astutely anticipated oncoming traffic. Didn't see me at all as she stepped out of the side entryway — right into my path.
"Shit!" I hit the horn. Slammed on the brakes.
My pulse spiked.
I heard her scream and her small handbag went flying into the air. She careened backward, stumbling on her high heels. She likely landed on her butt just inside the semi-enclosed walkway.
I shoved the gearshift into Park. Flung the door open and raced toward the woman, who was now on her hands and knees, trying to collect the contents of her purse, most of which had spilled out and scattered when it'd bounced off the hood of my Jeep.
I snatched the bag and said, "I have your purse. Cell phone intact. Damn it, I'm so sor —"
I turned back to her just as she was crawling away, toward another item. My gaze locked on her ass, encased in a tight, black skirt. The hem was so short, the material ended just below her cheeks while she was bent over.
And holy hell, what an ass it was. Small, tight, tempting.
My brain actually stalled out at the sight.
She ticked off her belongings as she reached for them. "Credit card. Driver's license. Compact. Bloody hell ... where's my lipstick? It's twenty-five dollars a tube, for fuck's sake."
I knew that sultry voice all too well.
Her head whipped around. Long, sleek blond strands slashed across her face, a few wayward ones sticking to her crimson lips. Her gaze met mine. Her tawny, mostly golden eyes were wide. Excitement — hot and bright — flared in them.
That was when it happened.
A jolt deep in my gut. Like a physical blow to my midsection.
Nearly doubling me over.
Rendering me speechless.
Something that never happened.
"Kyle! Good Lord," she said in her sexy British accent. "Here to save the day yet again, are you?"
One corner of my mouth lifted. Of its own accord, my gaze slid to her ass once more. I caught on to the traitorous action and forced myself to look at her face. Her incredibly beautiful face. Like steal-your-breath beautiful. High, rosy cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, insanely long, sooty lashes.
Her sculpted brows crooked. She'd busted me checking out her backside.
I chuckled. Seriously, the woman was on her hands and knees, and I wasn't going to stare at the most amazing ass ever to be put on display?
"Perhaps you could help me locate my lipstick?" she inquired, all feistylike. But also a bit breathy.
I gave her the full-on grin. Reached my hand toward her and said, "How about I help you up first?"
"Right." Her smile was an alluring one that showed off pearly white teeth. I was actually shocked there wasn't a sparkle against the front ones, like a TV commercial.
Except that Tamera Fenmore was no touched-up model. She was perfection personified, no Photoshop needed that I could see.
Her slim hand slipped into my much larger one, her skin velvety and warm. She stood, her enticing chest rising and falling a little faster than normal. She wore a pale-blue satin button-down blouse. And you can be damn certain I noticed her nipples tightening. Didn't miss the tanned and toned bare legs, either, which went on and on.
"Honestly, Kyle," she said in her saucy tone, "You didn't have to run me down to nab my attention. Your biceps alone could do the trick."
She laughed softly, a throaty sound that reverberated deep within me.
Crazy-wicked zaps targeted all the parts of me that sent my testosterone into the red zone and made my cock spring to life.
Thank God a bolt in the sky caused a flicker of her silver lipstick tube to catch my eye, distracting me from conjuring images of naked, tangled bodies. Ours, to be exact. There was no doubt the reality would be infinitely hotter than any fantasy I could drum up.
I moved around her and snatched the small cylindrical container from the ground. Dumped it in her purse.
"So, you're quite the sight for sore eyes," she said, oblivious to the fact that she'd sent me into sensory overload.
"I was thinking something similar," I muttered.
Christ, I wouldn't have believed she could be more striking than the last time I'd seen her — that fated day Ari and Dane had held their nuptial redo for the world to know they belonged to each other. I'd been released from my mad-crush on Ari, only to have my gaze fall on our friend Tamera, who'd officiated. I'd really seen her for the first time that day.
It'd been a watershed moment for me.
Then Tamera had disappeared.
"Ari didn't tell me you were back from London," I said, my heart thumping mightily at the vision before me — definitely the sign I'd been looking for.
"Just returned two days ago," she told me. "I haven't even had the chance to ring Ari. There's been so much to catch up on. And I have clients to reconnect with — in fact, I just came from a dinner on the patio of René with a lovely couple I'm marrying on Wednesday. But I'd adore getting together with everyone soon. I've missed you all."
It'd been five months since the big Lux wedding. Five months since Tamera had hopped the pond to Europe, where her family lived. Five months that I'd had that itch in the back of my brain, which had reminded me of its presence earlier when I'd walked Grace to her car.
I'd been waiting those whole five months for something to jar me, light me up, the way seeing Tamera just had.
Because I'd been waiting all that time for her?
I gave a sharp shake of my head, thinking I ought to immediately deny — reject — that thought.
Maybe it was my never-ending loyalty to Ari that gave me pause.
Then again ... I wasn't romantically involved with or committed to Ari. Clearly.
So why the fuck should I feel even the tiniest bit guilty that taking one look at Tamera had every nerve ending jumping?
While I continued my mental stall-out, she took her handbag from me and said, "It really is so good to see you, Kyle."
This brought me around. I bit back the "It's damn good to see you, Tamera," and went for a more-casual, less-overwhelming sentiment. "It's been too long."
She gazed up at me, her golden eyes glowing seductively. "Yes," she said, her tone suggestive. "It really has been much too long."
I wondered if there was a double meaning wrapped in those words — or was my mind playing tricks on me because she instantly had me all twisted up, my cock pulsing in wild beats, my breath coming in heavier pulls.
She hadn't been dating anyone before she'd left for the UK. Maybe she hadn't dated anyone there, either?
As I contemplated her potential relationship status, a few raindrops splattered on her shoulders. Damn it, we needed to get out of the walkway before the deluge began. I would have offered to buy her a drink, since we were standing mere feet from El Rincon and I wasn't yet ready to end the unexpected reunion, but I needed to get back to the house. Relieve Amano — even though the household no longer faced life-threatening danger the way it previously had. And Dane was home with his wife and kid, anyway.
Yet Amano had watched over Dane from the time Dane was a month old — an orphaned billionaire who'd been the target of a few greedily devious plots in his time — so Amano had the natural compulsion to keep an eye now on Dane's son when I was away.
I didn't want Amano pushing it too much, though, since he suffered residual aches and pains from our grand finale last year — a standoff with the leader of the corrupt Lux investors Dane had cut from the roster.
They'd come after us hard. We'd hit back harder.
Now I had to subtly coax Amano into taking it easy. He was pushing sixty-five, after all. His body could use the break from all the bullets he'd taken.
I said to Tamera, "I have to get home. I'll walk you to your car."
"It's 'round the corner, up front."
"Then I'll drive you. We're about to get dumped on."
Sure enough, I barely had time to ease the Rubicon forward — clearing the Bentley so she could slip into the passenger side of the Jeep — before the clouds erupted.
A few people rushed to their vehicles, but I surmised the majority intended to wait out the storm inside the various shops and eateries. I pulled around to the front lot, Tamera directing me to a shiny red convertible BMW.
Excerpted from Burning Obsession by Calista Fox. Copyright © 2016 Calista Fox. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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