Read an Excerpt
A perfect blend of the absurd and obscene. That described the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. Scantily clad women strolling beside men in cat costumes and stilts, all while evangelists screamed about the perils of sin.
Excess. Excitement. And that ever-present air of danger. .because just about anything could-and did-happen.
Strangers rubbing against strangers because that was the only way through the wall-to-wall humanity. Heat and hedonism. Music, loud voices and raised laughter filling every available inch of space.
All around him, the party raged. But Beckett Kayne didn't care.
Leaning against the railing, he watched dispassionately as the crowd beneath the balcony swelled. Beside him Mason Westbrook, his best friend since childhood, held out several blinking LED necklaces. Shaking them enticingly, he yelled something crude.
Two women, wearing short, flared skirts and bustiers, giggled up at them with glassy-eyed interest. They clung together, no doubt keeping each other from falling flat on their wasted asses.
"You know what you have to do to get 'em," Mason taunted.
One of the women-and Beckett used the term loosely, because if they were a day over twenty-one he'd be damn surprised-shook her head slowly. Considering he owned a series of nightclubs scattered in major cities across the United States, he'd gotten pretty talented at spotting minors.
The brunette pouted. "We can't." Tugging at the edge of her top, she yelled, "It's too tight."
Mason simply grinned, his teeth flashing white through the dark night. "Then show me something else."
Moments like these, Beckett wondered why the hell he'd kept Mason in his life past the bonding years of their uninhibited carousing. Yes, there was a time when he would have been beside his friend, trying to coax the coeds into showing what the good Lord gave them.
But at thirty-two he was getting too old for this shit. Certainly too old for the doe-eyed girls on the street.
With a sense of disgust and inevitability, Beckett watched their heads go together as they whispered to each other, cutting quick glances up. After several moments they spun around. Beckett really hoped they were leaving but knew they probably weren't.
Instead, he watched them bend at the waist and flip up the edges of their skirts to show their practically naked rears.
Mason let out a wolf whistle and rained necklaces, gold coins and a handful of cheap trinkets down onto the street at their feet.
Tonight, the uncontrolled excess seriously bothered
Beckett. Or maybe that was just the bad mood he'd been fighting for the past few weeks. He was getting jaded.
Instead of growling something at Mason he'd most likely regret later, Beckett raised his glass and pulled a healthy swallow of expensive scotch into his mouth. It was smooth, and the welcome fire burning down his throat beat back the words threatening to break free.
He didn't want to be here. Had tried to tell Mason he'd be bad company, but his friend had guilted him into coming anyway. A private balcony party the Friday before Fat Tuesday, thrown by one of the partners in his firm, wasn't something to be missed.
But his head was firmly embedded in business and the way everything he wanted was slowly slipping through his fingers.
A dark scowl, an expression he'd been wearing all too often lately, pinched his brows. Beckett wasn't used to being ignored and dismissed, but that was exactly what V&D Mobile Technology was doing.
Although not anymore. Not after tomorrow.
"Seriously, man, you're scaring off the chicks. Stop scowling. It's Mardi Gras," Mason yelled, as if the music, the people and the mask Beckett was currently wearing weren't enough for him to notice.
The air of wild debauchery, so palpable he could taste it on the back of his tongue, dark and sinfully sweet, was hard to ignore. Even if he would have liked to.
The girls on the street moved on, but Mason wasn't disappointed. Not when several feet away two more women, also decked out in feathered masks and barely stable enough to stay atop their skyscraper heels, pulled up their shirts and flashed their naked chests. A hailstorm of beads, accompanied by catcalls, landed at their feet.
Charming. Beckett looked away, disgust twisting hard in his gut. Shaking his head, he watched Mason scoot down the railing toward the women busy gathering the beads they'd exposed themselves to win.
Using Mason's distraction as a chance to finally slip away, Beckett moved farther into the shadows along the balcony. The big building was divided into expensive townhomes, making the space long and narrow. The balconies, on the second and third levels, curved around the front and all the way along the far side. Most everyone crowded near the street, so they could watch the people and party going on below.
Beckett just wanted a moment of peace to try and combat the headache threatening to balloon into a migraine. Settling his back against the rough brick, he propped a single foot on the intricate metal railing in front of him and closed his eyes. A deep breath and another healthy swallow of scotch had some of the knots unwinding from between his shoulder blades.
He could still hear the noise from the street, but the side balcony wrapped around into a controlled-access alley. During Mardi Gras, without fences-and sometimes with-every square inch of real estate was covered with humanity. But this building was pricey enough to have very good security-high fences, electronic locks and surveillance cameras. With a practiced eye, Beckett had noticed the expensive recording equipment.
The alley was empty, filled with nothing but shadows, trash cans and a black cat that stared at him with wide, yellow eyes. He was enjoying the muted solitude, gearing up for his inevitable return to the decadence, when a light snapped on in an apartment across the alley.
It startled him. That was the only reason he looked. But once he did he couldn't tear his gaze away.
The balcony he was standing on was higher than the windows he was staring straight into, which meant he was looking slightly down into the room.
A woman's bedroom.
Blue, green and purple light scattered across the space from a stained-glass lamp on the bedside table. Shadows chased across pale green walls and smooth, dark floors. Heavy furniture, the solid kind that carried age and history, filled the room.
A four-poster bed occupied most of the space with gleaming golden wood and an inviting cloud of fluffy jewel-toned pillows. Appealing and comfortable, the whole room looked like a sumptuous invitation he wanted to accept.
But that really wasn't what had his gaze glued.
She stood framed by the window. A soft radiance from the lamp slipped across her body. It lit her from behind, painting her in an ethereal splash of color that made her seem dreamy and tragic and somehow unreal.
Maybe that's why he kept watching. Logically, he realized he was intruding, but there was something about her .
Her head drooped as if she was too tired to hold it up. Her shoulders slumped. He watched them rise and fall on the kind of heavy breath that was more ragged sigh than actual exhalation. Without even hearing it, the sigh shot straight through him.
Until that moment she'd been facing away from him, but she turned slightly, giving him her profile. And she was gorgeous. Little pug nose, elegant jawline, lush lips.
Her hair curled over her shoulder in a wave of brown and gold that caught the light and reflected it. His hands itched to sweep it away so that he could run his fingers down the curve of her throat.
Her eyelids slid closed and her head tipped back. Exhaustion was stamped into every line of her body, but that didn't detract from her allure. In fact, it made Beckett want to reach out and hold her more. To take her weight and the exhaustion on himself.
Her hands drifted slowly up her body, settling at the top button of her blouse. With sure fingers, she popped it open. And another. And another. The edge of her hotred bra came into view, revealing the swell of enticing breasts, a beautiful, pale expanse of skin.
Tension snapped through Beckett's body. Perhaps the hedonistic pressure of the night had gotten to him after all. Because, even as his brain was screaming at him to avert his gaze and give her the privacy she obviously thought she had, he couldn't do it.
Especially as her nimble fingers kept going, giving him more. Suddenly restless, he couldn't stay still. His muscles twitched, pulsed. Three minutes ago he'd been nursing the beginnings of a headache. Now the ache had moved much farther south.
It had been a very long time since any woman had pulled this kind of immediate physical reaction from him. Spending most of his nights surrounded by inebriated females on the prowl, he'd become a little jaded. After years of being immersed in the cat-and-mouse games, day in and day out, he was long past tired of being a player-or played.
Perhaps it was her air of innocence that not even the windowpane and ten feet of alley could camouflage. Or the fact that she wasn't playing at anything right now. She was simply herself-unconsciously sensual.
Shifting, Beckett dropped his foot and settled his waist against the hard edge of the railing. Why, he had no idea. It wasn't as though he could span the space between them. Not really. At least, not with anything other than his gaze.
He wanted to be the one uncovering her soft skin. Undressing her slowly, like a present he'd been waiting all year to receive. To run his fingers over her body. Hear the hitch of her breath when he discovered a sensitive spot. Watch her pupils dilate in response to his touch.
The need was staggering, compelling. It scared him. But not enough to turn away. He wasn't certain anything could have forced him to do that.
Maybe it was his movement that caught her attention, or the weight of his heated gaze finally penetrating her preoccupation. But suddenly her head snapped up and she looked straight into his eyes.
He watched the movement of her startled gasp, the swell of her breasts as they surged against the cups of her lace-edged bra. Her fingers stilled midmotion. Surprise, embarrassment and anger flitted across her face before finally settling into something darker and a hell of a lot more sinful.
Her head cocked to the side, considering.
She hadn't screeched down the place. Or slammed the blinds shut.
Without breaking eye contact, Beckett relaxed against the wall, as if settling in for the show, and crossed his arms over his chest. Lifting a single eyebrow, he dared her to keep going and held his breath, praying she would.
It was late. The craziness that was the last weekend before Fat Tuesday permeated the atmosphere. Maybe that spell was working them both.
Heartbreakingly slowly, she turned, giving him a full frontal view. The fingers that had gone still began to move again, making quick work of the few buttons that were left. The edges of her shirt fluttered open. His eyes sharpened, trying to see every minute detail of her body through the distance and the night.
Flat stomach, gorgeous expanse of perfect, creamy skin. He registered the slight pink tinge that swept up her chest and throat. Was it embarrassment, arousal or both?
Tugging each cuff at her wrists, she held her arms wide open and let the gauzy material slither against her skin. Down, down, down, until it puddled on the floor at her feet.
The cups of her bra sat low, barely containing the curve of her breasts. He could see the top arch of her areolae, a deep, dark pink. The color of raspberries. Would she be just as sweet and tart against his tongue?
Lace edged the top of her bra. He imagined it tickling across her sensitive nipples. Two teeny, tiny straps, looking as if they might snap at any moment, curved over her shoulders and strained against the heavy weight of her breasts. Never in his life had Beckett wanted so desperately for fabric to break.
Then she spun away. A growling protest was out of his mouth, and he'd taken a step forward before he realized she wasn't stopping, simply giving him her back.
Heavy lines of ink curled across her skin. Over her ribs, black, blue and purple twisted together into a picture. He couldn't see all of it, but enough to get the gist. Delicate wings, ethereal body, flowing hair. Just like her, the lithe fairy was turned away, showing only her back and bowed head.
For some reason, the picture she'd permanently placed on her skin made his chest ache. It reminded him of how she'd looked when she'd first walked into the room, exhausted and a little tragic.
Before he could follow that thread of thought, her arms reached behind her, blocking out his view of her ink. Her palms slipped down, smoothing her skirt. The material clung to her body, hugging the curve of her ass in a way that made his hands itch to do the same. Because he couldn't, Beckett curled his fingers into fists.
The skirt pulled in, following the contours of her hips and narrowing to skim her thighs. The hem hit just above her knees, a perfectly respectable length. But that didn't stop him from feeling sorry for every poor bastard who had to work with her, watch her prance around in that skirt and know his chances of getting beneath it were slim.
She took a single step forward, opening the slit that lined up perfectly with the seam of her thighs. This time, the groan Beckett bit back had nothing to do with fear that she was going to stop.
The slit ended near the tops of her thighs, hinting at what lay beneath. That hint was torture. Because, with the slit held open by her position, all he could see were shadows promising him so much more than she was giving.
Beckett's mouth went dry and then flooded with moisture. He wanted to taste her. To discover the musky scent of her arousal and press his face right there into those shadows.
Twisting, she set her pointy little chin on her shoulder and watched him as her fingers tugged at the zipper. Her hands eased the material down, inch by excruciating inch, revealing the scorching-red panties that matched her bra.
Satin and lace, the boyshorts covered her sweet curves. Something about them was both chaste and tantalizing. Like her, a contradiction. Adorably innocent yet devilishly tempting.
His eyes had been trained so intently on her rounded curves that it took him several moments to notice she was wearing thigh highs beneath that skirt.
Dear God in heaven.
Lace wrapped around the expanse of each thigh, cutting in and holding on. He could practically feel the silky texture of them against his palms, rubbing up and down his ribs as her thighs gripped him. Beckett swallowed. Hard. And the tiny, taunting smile that played across her lips told him she knew exactly the reaction she was pulling from him.
Dammit. It had been a very long time since he'd let a woman have the upper hand. How had this one managed it? With ten feet and a pane of glass between them.
When she walked several feet away from him, he got an unbelievably amazing view of her entire body. Killer legs he could imagine around his waist. Hips that swayed seductively. The firm curve of a good ass. The curl of ink, proof that she wasn't as buttoned up as her outward appearance suggested. Long expanse of elegant spine, riotous curls begging to have a man's hands twined in them and holding her close.
This woman was a siren. That's all there was to it.