For My Readers
CATARINA Benoit woke to screams. Terrible, frightening screams that echoed through her bedroom. Her heart pounded and sweat beaded on her body. Her long hair hung around her face in damp strands. She clapped a hand over her mouth to still the cries, her throat raw even as her eyes darted around the room. Searching. Always searching.
She searched the high places first—anywhere he could be crouched. Watching. Waiting to strike. She searched the windows. The glass was covered with bars, but she knew that wouldn’t stop him if he found her. Nothing ever stopped him. He could get inside any house, any building. Anywhere. Rafe Cordeau, the thing of nightmares.
She was safe. She had to be. She lived completely off the grid. Underground. She only came out at night. Her one exception to her night rule was her hour of running just before sunset. She worked in a quiet part of town, in a store no one would ever consider she would work in. Rafe would never figure it out, not in a million years. He couldn’t find her this time. She’d planned too carefully. She’d even stolen enough money to get herself a start. Right out of his safe. The one no one could crack. She’d done that. He wasn’t going to get his hands on her again. Never again.
She fell back against the pillows, drawing her knees into her chest, making herself into a small, protected ball, rocking gently to try to calm herself, to push the terror of the nightmare away. She could taste bile in her mouth.
Drawing in great, deep breaths to try to control her wild heart, she felt something else, something inside unfurl and stretch. It terrified her too. There was something in her, biding its time, waiting for a chance to get out, and she feared it was a monster. She feared he’d put it there, he’d somehow made her like him.
She knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep. Every window was covered with heavy drapes to block out the sun, but still, she would never be able to go back to sleep. She forced her legs to straighten. That hurt. Every muscle was sore from the terrible coiling in her body. She knew from experience it would be like that all day, her body feeling as if someone had beat her up with a baseball bat.
She sat up and scooted to the side of the bed, first, as she always did, feeling for the gun hidden beneath her pillow. The solid weight of it always made her feel better. She worked out, trained hard, even when she knew she still wouldn’t have a chance against him if he found her. Even so, she lived her life. Held herself still. Kept to herself. Reduced his odds.
She took a shower in the small cubicle. It was a rigged hose with a spray nozzle over the top of a tiny booth with a drain. It didn’t matter. She was safe. She lived in a warehouse, not her car. Mostly the warehouse was empty, but her martial arts instructor owned the property and he’d allowed her to rent the space when he realized she was living out of her car. He had barred the windows for her. She had put in the double locks herself.
She had done everything necessary to make herself safe, but then she’d made a vow. She would be happy every single second she was living free and alive. She wouldn’t hide in the warehouse, shut away from the world, she would live. She’d be smart and careful about it, but this time, she wouldn’t be a mouse hiding. It hadn’t done her much good the last time, and she wasted that little bit of freedom she’d had. The price definitely hadn’t been worth it then. She was going to make certain it was this time.
Catarina pressed her fingers hard against her temples, unwilling to revisit the moment when he’d last found her and his terrible punishment. Her entire body shuddered. She’d paid dearly, but that had only made her all the more determined to escape permanently. She’d been terrified and he thought that terror would work to his advantage. She let him think that, and then she’d escaped again.
Her life had really started with her martial arts instructor. Malcom Hardy was in his late sixties and from the moment she’d entered his class, he’d seemed to know something was wrong. He didn’t exactly ask questions, but somehow he found out she was living out of her car and he casually mentioned his empty warehouse. That had been the start of their strange friendship.
Catarina had never had a friendship with anyone before, and at first she was distrustful of his motives. It had taken Malcom months to gain her trust enough that she stayed and had a few words privately with him after each class. She hadn’t told him her past, only that she was looking for a job and needed a safe home. She’d used the word safe in the hopes that he would understand without an explanation—and he had.
When she’d escaped, she hadn’t taken tons of money from the safe because she didn’t want Rafe to have more reason to come after her if by chance he’d given up on her. That meant she didn’t have a lot of money. It also meant, if he had given up on her, he’d send his kill squad after her. Either way she wasn’t safe and she needed to be very careful with her money.
Malcom slowly won her over with his many simple kindnesses. He casually dropped by to put the bars on the windows when she’d mentioned she was a little nervous. He’d also been the one to find her the job after she told him what her dream job would be.
Catarina loved her job. The coffee-house-slash-bookstore was old, the kind where poets and writers came and read their work every Friday. It was a throwback world that suited her. Books were everywhere, and people gathered to talk and read and show off their work. She liked that the place was a tribute to a bygone era and the regulars who occupied it were loyal and definitely different.
She made certain never to stand out. She dressed in loose-fitting jeans. A loose-fitting shirt. Her hair had always grown thick and fast and got worse the more she cut it. She’d given up on short hair so she pulled it back in a ponytail or braid and often wore hats. Since everyone who came to the coffee-house wore berets or felt hats, she wasn’t out of place. Most wore sunglasses, even at night, as well, so she did that too, hiding her unusually colored cobalt eyes.
The coffee-house stayed open nearly twenty-four hours, and she had the shift that ran from seven in the evening until three in the morning, when she closed the shop. They got a large influx of people looking to wind down from drinking, dancing and clubbing at the bars that closed at two. She wasn’t fond of that particular crowd, but she’d grown used to it.
She spent an hour on working the heavy bag Malcom had hung for her and another hour doing sit-ups and crunches and push-ups. She dressed in baggy sweats and went running. That killed another hour and put her to sunset. Another shower and she headed for the coffee-house.
She tried hard not to allow her heart to do a little stutter, wondering if the new instructor Malcom had hired would drop by again. She liked looking at him. He was a bonus at the dojo as well as the coffee-house. She’d never found herself looking at a man before—she’d never dared to. But he was special. Everything about him was special.
He’d been at the dojo a month, and she’d watched him with the same distrust she had for anyone new who came into her world. He was absolutely the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life. He was brutal when he fought, and yet, at the same time, graceful and fluid. Sheer poetry. He was light on his feet, very fast, so smooth. He was always, always utterly calm. She couldn’t imagine him ruffled over anything. He embodied the world of martial arts—he lived that way—not just in the dojo but out of it.
Still, she kept her distance, even when he’d noticed her in the dojo and smiled at her a time or two. She didn’t smile back. She didn’t encourage any kind of a relationship, nor did she want one. Not because she didn’t ever talk to people, but because he made her feel something she’d never felt before. But she liked looking at him. Maybe a little too much.
She didn’t have flights of erotic fantasy or dreams. Her body had never awakened, on fire, burning with need and hunger. Her breasts hadn’t felt swollen and achy, desperate for a man’s touch. Not until she laid eyes on Malcom’s new instructor. Something moved in her. Something took over, and unexpectedly, at night, when she wasn’t having nightmares, she had erotic dreams that burned through her body until she couldn’t breathe. Abruptly they’d leave her, and once they were gone her body would settle and she’d be perfectly fine again. He was definitely someone she needed to stay away from, but looking at him was acceptable.
He’d sauntered into the coffee-house two weeks after starting with Malcom. She’d noticed him immediately. How could she not? When he moved, the roped muscles of his body, even beneath his tight black shirt, did a delicious kind of rippling that drew every feminine eye in the place. Ridley Cromer. The name was as strange and unique as the man.
Catarina stood outside the coffee-house just staring into the windows, feeling happy. She always made certain she acknowledged being happy. That was important. She woke up in the morning and always, always told herself she would be happy that day.
She froze, the smile fading. The other thing strange about Ridley Cromer was the fact that she never heard him when he came near her. He didn’t make a sound. She heard everyone. She always knew when someone was close to her. The reason why she excelled in martial arts was because she always anticipated her opponent’s move. It was as if she had a kind of radar telling her where everyone was at all times within her space. Everyone but Ridley Cromer.
She turned her head, holding her breath, her smile fading. Her eyes met Ridley’s and the impact was so strong the air rushed from her lungs as if she’d been punched. He had beautiful eyes. Intense. The way he looked at her was intense. Everything about him was intense. And Zen. Very Zen.
She forced herself to nod out of politeness. She knew if she tried to speak she would squeak like a mouse and nothing else would emerge. Ridley Cromer was fine to look at. Daydream about. Even have night fantasies over, but there was no talking. No interaction. Not ever. If all the rest of the world of women were smart, they’d adopt her steadfast rules with him.
“You working tonight or just looking for company?”
His voice was low and sexy. Her pulse beat hard in her throat. She swallowed hard. She’d never had a crush on anyone in her life, but he was standing right in front of her. Towering over her. His eyes smiled and his white teeth flashed. He should be locked up to preserve all women’s virtues.
She shook her head and reached for the door handle. He reached at the same time, his hand settling around hers as she grasped the knob. A shiver of absolute awareness slid down her spine. Curled in her belly. There was a sudden tingle in her breasts and she felt heat gathering in her very core. Not like her night fantasies, where her body burned up, but still . . .
He didn’t let go of her hand, and she couldn’t remove hers from the doorknob. His touch was light. Gentle. She should have pulled her hand away but she was frozen to the spot. He stepped closer, so close she could feel the heat of his body seeping into hers. He was hot. He radiated heat. His breath was warm on the nape of her neck, and for the first time she wished she’d left her hair down to protect herself.
“It’s Cat, right? Malcom calls you Cat. You’re his favorite student. I’ve never known him to have a favorite. I’m Ridley Cromer.”
She closed her eyes briefly. Thunder roared in her ears. Her brain short-circuited. His voice was pitched so low that it seemed to slide beneath her skin and find its way directly into her bloodstream like some strange new drug. No one touched her. No one dared. He had broken that taboo. She didn’t know how to feel about it.
“You’re quick. Very fast,” he went on, as if she wasn’t the rudest person in the world for not answering him. “I couldn’t help but watch you sparring the other day. You were wiping up the floor with men ranked much higher than you. Men with a lot more experience. It was a thing of beauty.”
A thing of beauty. She would hold that close to her and think about it when she was alone. A compliment. Coming from someone who clearly could best anyone in the dojo, probably including Malcom, it was very high praise. Still, she couldn’t stand there being an absolute idiot.
She finally found her wits and gave the door a desperate twist, flashing what she hoped was a careless smile of thanks over her shoulder at him. She yanked open the door, but found when she stepped back she stepped right into him. Right into him.
His body was as hard as a rock. It was rather like smashing herself against an oak tree. His arms came around her automatically to steady her. The heat radiating from him nearly burned right through her clothes.
To her absolute horror, she banged the door closed again as she threw herself forward and away from him. She nearly ran into the heavy glass, but his hands were suddenly at her waist, gently moving her away from the door.
One moment she was heading for danger; the next he had literally lifted her and put her a foot away from the door.
“Kitten, you’d better let me get that.”
Color rushed up her neck into her face. To her everlasting mortification, she could hear male amusement in his voice. She was an idiot—a tongue-tied idiot—and he’d think she was crazy. Still—she gulped air—that was for the best. He’d just dismiss her, hopefully never look at her again. Not with those eyes. Those beautiful, antique gold eyes. Who had eyes that color?
He pulled the door open and held it, waiting for her to go through. Thankfully she found her legs and moved past him, once again throwing a small, hopefully thankful smile at him over her shoulder. She walked stiffly to the counter and shoved her things beneath it on the other side.
She was absolutely certain someone needed to file away books in the back where no one could see her. Someone else could make the coffee tonight and she’d just go hide.
“Cat, great, you’re here.” David Belmont, the owner of Poetry Slam, threw her an apron. “Get to it, hon. Everyone’s been complaining because apparently my coffee doesn’t taste like yours. I’ve watched you a million times and I do exactly the same thing, but it never comes out like yours.”
“You don’t like making coffee, David,” Catarina replied, and put on her apron. Which she found hilarious because he owned the coffee-house.
The moment she was behind the coffee machine, David moved into position to take orders and money. Clearly there he was in his element, chatting up the customers, remembering their names, talking them into some of the bakery goods sold with the coffee. He even remembered the poetry or short stories they wrote. He was awesome with the customers, and she was awesome with the coffee. They made a great team.
She didn’t look up when anyone ordered. It was part of her strategy to keep in the background. The mouse in the coffee-house. Unfortunately, because she was great at making any type of coffee drink, the customers were aware of her. She was the reigning barista, and the customers had begun to fill the coffee-house nightly.
She had worked hard to learn what she needed to in secret. She read, watched countless videos and committed coffee books to memory. Before that, she’d had to learn to read. She was a little smug about it. Rafe would never, ever think to find her in a bookstore/coffee-house. Never. She was poor little illiterate Catarina.
She kept her eyes on the espresso machine when she heard Ridley give his order in a soft, low tone that set a million butterflies winging in her stomach. She already knew exactly what he wanted, just as she did with most of the regulars. He hadn’t been coming in all that long, but she was aware of every breath he took—just as the other women were. She certainly remembered what he liked for coffee.
She knew exactly where he sat without looking up. He always pulled out a book, usually on mediation or essays from a Zen master, while he drank his coffee. He savored coffee. She’d watched him, sneaking looks of course, and he always had the same expression on his face. She knew she put it there. She might not be a conversationalist, but she made spectacular coffee.
She forced herself to make fifteen more coffees before she looked up. Her gaze collided with his. All that beautiful, perfect, molten gold. She almost fell right into his eyes. She blushed. She knew she did. There was no stopping the color rising into her cheeks. He gave her a faint, sexy smile. She looked down without smiling back, concentrating on her work.
One look and her stomach did a crazy roll. What was wrong with her? She didn’t have physical reactions to men. It was just not okay. She couldn’t ever be stupid enough to wish for a relationship. She’d get someone killed that way. In any case, she’d be too afraid. She didn’t even know what a relationship was.
But he was darned good to look at, she acknowledged with a secret smile. Darned good. The familiar rhythm of the coffee-house settled her nerves. The aroma of coffee and fresh baked goods swept her up into the easy atmosphere. Once the poetry slam started, darkness descended. There was usually little joy in the poems, but she enjoyed them all the same.
Bernard Casey, a regular who was usually first up at the microphone, accepted his caramel macchiato from David, took one sip, and pushed his head over the counter the way he did each evening.
“Hey, coffee woman. Heaven again.”
She shot him a smile. It was safe to smile at Bernard. He loved coffee, his poems and little else. “Hey coffee man, glad you think so.” He only looked at her once a day, and that was when he gave her the nightly compliment.
It was their standard greeting. Bernard waved and settled at his usual table right in front of the microphone, making certain he would be the first and last poet of the night.
• • •
RIDLEY observed Catarina over the top of the book he no longer had any interest in. She was beautiful and she was scared. Very scared. She thought she’d managed to downplay her looks, but a man would have to be blind not to see through her baggy clothes and attempts to tame her wild hair.
Her sunglasses didn’t hide the perfection of her skin, and when she took them off and looked at a man with her exotic cobalt blue eyes, the color a deep intense violet at times, ringed with those long dark lashes—well—the punch was low and it was just plain sinful.
And then there was her mouth. Full lips like a cupid’s bow. Turned up at the corners just slightly. Her lower lip could make a man go to his knees and fill his nights with erotic fantasies. When her lips parted and she gave a small, distracted smile, the one that meant she wasn’t seeing you, any man worth his salt couldn’t help but take on that challenge. When she smiled, like she’d just done to Bernard, the strange poet who poured out his feelings for her through his poems, Ridley knew a man would kill for her.
She was nothing at all like he expected her to be. He watched her at the dojo with Malcom during her lessons and training sessions. She was focused. Intelligent, which, when fighting, was important. She was quick, her reflexes good, and she moved with a fluid grace that took his breath away. He wasn’t the only man in the dojo who stopped what he was doing to watch.
He expected her to be a man-killer. She should have been. She had the face and the body. She had the voice. She had a soft drawl, barely there, the kind of drawl that reminded him of drifting down the bayou on a lazy summer night with the sky above him dark and a thousand stars shining overhead and a woman, naked in his arms.
She should have had all the confidence in the world. She had confidence when she sparred with any man Malcom put her against, and so far she’d wiped up the floor with them no matter their rank. She was that fast. She had confidence behind the espresso machines and she had every reason to. She had confidence when she walked home at three o’clock in the morning and she shouldn’t.
But she didn’t look at men. She didn’t talk to them. There was no flirting. He’d never seen her flirt with anyone. Not a man or a woman. She was definitely a puzzle, and one he wanted to solve.
He’d deliberately stepped up close to her, crowded her space, to see what she’d do. She hadn’t defended herself. She hadn’t told him to get the hell away from her. She froze. Breathless. Terrified. She’d confused the hell out of him, and that didn’t happen very often. She’d intrigued him, and that happened even less often. She’d also done something insane to his body.
He was a man always in control. Always. Control defined him. He was a man and lived his life as a man. He was tough and liked things his way, and he always got what he wanted. He was single-minded that way. Women, especially man-killers, didn’t do a thing for him. But Catarina . . . The moment her soft body had come up against his, the moment he’d touched bare skin, everything hot and wild and hungry in him responded. He wanted her. And he wanted her for himself. Exclusively. That had never happened before.
He looked down at his arms, at the tattoos he’d acquired so painstakingly over the years. He looked rough and mean. He knew that. It served him well to look that way. He deliberately wore his hair longer than most. He served notice to other men just who he was and what he was capable of. Men got the hell out of his way when he was after something. Especially a woman.
Women were easy for him. He didn’t have to work hard at all and that was okay, but it never lasted more than a night or two—not for him anyway. But this woman . . . She’d burn up in his arms, and it wouldn’t be enough. He got that already just by looking at her. So did every other man who came near her. The difference was, most of them would step back and wait for a signal that was never going to come. That was definitely not the way to handle a woman like Catarina. A man had to take over and be decisive about it.
Catarina felt the weight of Ridley’s gaze on her. She knew he was watching her without even looking up. Her body responded just as if he was standing in front of her. For one moment she felt restless, achy, in need even. That something wild crouched inside of her stretched. Her skin itched. She couldn’t breathe and her skull felt too tight. For one terrible moment, her skin went hot and that terrible burn began between her legs. She could barely breathe with the need and hunger.
Horrified, she dragged off the apron and tossed it to David. “I need a break, just a short one.”
Even here in her sanctuary, the one place she could go and be around others, her past tried hard to drag her down. She was aware of Ridley’s attention settling on her instantly, alertly, but she didn’t so much as glance at him. Her past was too close. Even from a thousand miles away, he was controlling her. She couldn’t look at another man without something inside of her turning ugly.
The book aisles were narrow, the stacks rising from floor to ceiling. She wound her way through them to the back door and pushed it open. The night air hit her face, cool and refreshing, enfolding her in its blanket of darkness. She drew in several deep breaths and stepped outside. The cool air felt good on her skin. She dragged the hat from her hair and sank down onto the steps leading to the back door.
Strangely, she’d always had great night vision, and this last month she’d noticed it had gotten even better. She liked that she could see in the dark. She loved the night. There was an entirely different world going on at night and she was part of it. That made her part of something. And Rafe couldn’t take that away from her.
She had to stifle a scream as she twisted, nearly throwing herself off the stairs. Ridley stood behind her, in the doorway, his tall body solid, both terrifying and safe. He stepped next to her and closed the door, sinking down onto the step beside her.
“Are you all right? You went very pale in there.”
His voice could mesmerize. At least it was mesmerizing her. She nodded, because his eyes refused to leave her face, drifting over her intently.
He frowned suddenly “Are you afraid of me? All this time I just thought you were shy, but you’re afraid of me.” He made the last a statement.
She looked away from him. Thankfully whatever was inside of her, threatening to burst free, had subsided along with the terrible need to feel Ridley’s hands and mouth on her body.
His fingers settled gently on her chin and he turned her face toward him. “I wouldn’t hurt you. You don’t know me, but I would never harm a woman. I’m not like that. I’m new in town and you’re at the dojo and make fantastic coffee, that’s all. I wanted a little company. Just to talk to, Cat. That’s all. End of story.”
It was impossible to look into his eyes and not believe him. Up close she could smell him, and he smelled nice. Very nice. Very masculine. His lashes were long and thick, framing his incredible golden eyes. His tattoos were just as intricate and intriguing as he was. They crawled up his arms, drawing attention to his amazing and very defined muscles.
He was still looking at her and hadn’t blinked once. His fingers remained firm but gentle on her chin. She’d forgotten that she’d been so mesmerized by his eyes. Catarina forced air into her lungs and smiled. Before she could speak he shook his head.
“I saw the genuine thing, Cat. You smiled at Bernard. You gave him the real smile, the high voltage one that can knock a man off his feet at two hundred yards. I don’t want a pretend smile. Give me the real thing or don’t smile at me at all. I’m telling you again, I don’t hurt women.”
His voice was pure velvet. She shivered, his tone smoothing over her skin. “I’m sorry. I’m not afraid of you.” A blatant lie. “I just don’t talk much.” That was lame. More than lame. She was a total idiot, but maybe that would save her.
Ridley’s fingers slid from her chin. He didn’t move, his thigh tight against hers on the narrow steps. “Unfortunately for you, Kitten, I am very adept at knowing a lie when I hear one. I’ve done my best to reassure you, but talk is cheap. I guess I’ll just have to show you I’m a nice guy.”
She was certain he was not. Oh, not like Rafe Cordeau. Not like that. But he was dangerous. She knew dangerous men, and this one sitting beside her was no domestic kitty cat. He was a tiger, all raw power and razor-sharp focus. But he wasn’t bad dangerous. He was just plain scary dangerous. And a heartbreaker.
She sighed, hating that she actually felt the loss of his fingers on her skin—hating that every single cell in her body was aware of him. He was a good ten years older in years and experience. There were scars. There were the tats. There was the cool confidence and the lines in his face that only seemed to add to his masculine beauty.
She knew what he saw when he looked at her. She’d always looked young and she was barely twenty-one. He would consider her someone he had to look after, just as Malcom did. That was safe. She needed safe, especially around this man.
“Maybe I am a little afraid of you,” she forced herself to admit. “I’ve seen you in the dojo and you’re rather terrifying.” That much was true, and if he really were as adept at reading lies then he’d have to hear the sincerity in her voice.
“That’s a place of practice. This is a coffee-house. Unless you’re going to stand up in front of that mic and read off some really bad poetry, I don’t think you have a thing to worry about,” he assured.
There was a drawling amusement in his voice, one that made her want to laugh with him, but it was as sexy as all get-out, and she couldn’t make a noise. Not a single sound for a few seconds. She cleared her throat. “I’m not good at talking to people.”
“You talk just fine to Malcom. In fact, you laugh when you’re with him. It’s the only time I’ve seen you actually laugh.”
Her heart jumped. She tensed and knew he felt it. Still, as hard as she tried she couldn’t relax. Had he been watching her? Why? What did that mean? She bit down on her lower lip, a little afraid that she was so paranoid even such a simple statement could make her want to run.
“Malcom isn’t people.”
“I know he’s your friend,” Ridley conceded. “He’s very closed-mouth about you and protective.”
She turned her eyes on him. Fixed. Focused. Alert. “Were you asking him questions about me?”
“Of course I was. You’re beautiful. Mysterious. A turn-on in the dojo. When you move, honestly, Kitten, I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re fast and fluid and hot as hell. You put James Marley down with one punch. One. You hit him exactly on his weak spot and dropped him like a ton of bricks. Your eyes are amazing, and so is your hair. You have the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. Are you telling me Malcom doesn’t get asked about you regularly? Women like you don’t walk the streets alone at night. That’s just asking for trouble.”
Her breath slammed out of her lungs. “You followed me?” That couldn’t be. She would have known.
“Every night that you lock up and walk back to the warehouse. Did you really think I’d let a woman walk alone that time of night? Any woman? But especially a woman like you? No fuckin’ way.”
Something in his eyes made her shiver. Hot. Angry. A flash, no more, and then quickly suppressed. He really didn’t like her walking alone at night.
He had been at the coffee-house every night the past two weeks until three A.M. But she hadn’t seen him or heard him or even felt him following her. And that was bad. She couldn’t afford to miss a tail. She had a sixth sense about that kind of thing, and yet he had followed her every single night.
“I can take care of myself.”
“Cat, even Malcom will tell you that you aren’t being realistic. You’re good, there’s no question about it, but you’re small. A man gets his hands on you and you’re done. You’re smart enough to know that. You can defend from a distance, but if he knows what he’s doing he’s going to get past that guard and tie you up. Why don’t you drive your car? That would be much safer.”
She wasn’t about to tell him gas cost the earth. He didn’t need to know her personal finances, but she wasn’t wasting precious gas when she could walk to and from work. It just wasn’t that far.
“It isn’t any of your business,” she said, and knew she sounded uptight and stiff. Well, she was uptight and stiff. And it wasn’t any of his business.
The same flash was there in his eyes. Hot. Angry. Pure steel. Her stomach did another flip. He was both scary and sexy at the same time, a combination she wanted no part of.
“I’m making it my business, Kitten, whether you like it or not. After hours, half the men in here are drunk. Why do you think they’re in here?”
“I make a mean cup of coffee and word has gotten around. It sobers them up a little. Coming to Poetry Slam gives them some time to wind down.”
He made a sound in the back of his throat that alarmed her. A rumble. A growl. The sound found its way to her heart, kick-starting her into flight mode.
“You can’t possibly be that naïve, woman. Just in the two weeks I’ve been coming, the traffic between midnight and three has doubled. Mostly men. They come here because they’re hoping to get lucky. They spend the entire time staring at you and trying to think of ways to get you in their beds. A few of them may have figured out that you walk home and they may make plans you aren’t going to like and can’t do anything about on your own.”
She jumped up fast, but he was faster, his long fingers settling around her wrist, shackling her to him. He stood too, towering over her. His fierce golden eyes stared down into her blue ones, just as intense as she remembered, more so even. His gaze cut right through her until she feared every secret she had was laid bare in front of him.
“Don’t run from me. I’m telling you the truth. Clearly you’re living in a dream world when it comes to men and their intentions.”
She tilted her head to one side, forgetting to keep her attitude in check. “Would you like to tell me what your intentions are?” she challenged.
His eyes changed and she knew immediately she’d made a terrible mistake. His eyes went liquid gold, focused and unblinking, locked onto her, and this time there was interest. Real interest. Before she’d been the one locked on to him, playing in her head with silly fantasies, but his motivation for following her had been actually watching out for her—she could see that now, at least she thought she could. Until that moment. That second.
She’d put too much sass into her tone. There was no backtracking from that, not with the stark speculation in his eyes. She forced air through her burning lungs and tugged at her hand to try to get him to release her.
His thumb slid over her wrist, right over her pounding pulse, a mere brush, but the stroke sent hot blood rushing through her veins. She wanted to look away, but there was no getting away from the piercing stare of his eyes.
“Now I’m seeing you, Kitten. And you’ve got a little bite to you.”
“Enough to handle myself if someone decides to attack me on my way home.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said, and tugged at her hand again.
His hold didn’t loosen. He wasn’t hurting her; in fact, the pad of his thumb sent waves of heat curling through her body as it continued to brush little strokes over her pulse.
“It matters to me.”
“It isn’t your business.” Now he was back to scaring her. He couldn’t follow her around. Especially not to her home.
She was usually adept at spotting and shaking a tail. She practiced. He couldn’t see her practicing. He’d wonder what she was doing and why. She desperately tried to remember if she’d done such a thing in the last two weeks. Usually, after working a full shift, she was exhausted and didn’t take the extra time.
“I’ve decided to make it my business.”
His voice was so low she could barely catch the sound, but the tone vibrated right through her body, disturbing her balance. She almost felt as if she was caught in a dream, waking up for the first time, suddenly aware of what real chemistry between a man and a woman was. She was certain she’d been the only one to feel it, and even then, it was just an awareness, not in the least harmful—like her silly daydreams of him.
This was altogether different. Her awareness of him, her reaction, was so strong, almost feral, female reacting to a male on the hunt, wanting him, yet wanting to run. Maybe needing the chase to prove something to both of them. She saw the answering challenge in his eyes. It was impossible not to see.
She shook her head and took two steps back, trying to put distance between them despite his fingers around her wrist. In spite of the fact that she couldn’t look away from him. What was wrong with her? Her lack of control was frightening. She couldn’t blow this. She didn’t dare.
“I have no interest whatsoever in a relationship with anyone. I don’t do one-night stands and I don’t date. I don’t want attention from you or any other man. I’m asking you politely to let go of my wrist.”
She could barely get the words out. There was something, a part of her she’d never known existed, a part of her that didn’t want to walk away from this man. He was beautiful. Sexy. Intelligent. And Dangerous. Everything a woman might find attractive in a man. Everything she found attractive when she hadn’t even known she could be attracted.
He didn’t release her right away. His amazing eyes searched hers for a long moment. His face softened, and the male challenge was gone from his hard features as if it had never been there. Instead, he looked gentle. Still holding her wrist with one hand, he retrieved her hat with the other and gave it to her.
“You really are afraid of me, aren’t you? I’m not going to hurt you, Cat. No matter what you think, I won’t do that to you.” His voice was pure velvet, stroking over her skin, low and vibrant and all male, almost a purr. His eyes hypnotized her all over again. They hadn’t blinked. Not once. She was watching to see. He was absolutely, entirely focused on her and her alone.
Her belly did a slow roll and her breasts ached. Each separate spot where the pads of his fingers touched her bare skin felt as if he burned a brand right through her skin to her bones.
She hated that she was so susceptible to his voice. To his eyes. She retreated back to the character that always served her so well. She let her eyelashes fall, and nodded as if she understood. She couldn’t handle a man like Ridley. She knew that. She didn’t dare chance becoming his friend. She wouldn’t know what to do with him.
He let her go. The moment she was free of his grip, she pulled her arm to her, pushing her wrist up against her body as if she could hold in the heat from his touch. She sent him one look from under her lashes and hurried past him back inside.
CATARINA looked at her watch for the hundredth time and then looked at David. He rolled his eyes. He held up his hands, fingers spread wide and grinned at her.
“Last call, everyone,” David shouted. “If you want a coffee for the road, come get it now. We’re closed in ten.”
She flashed him a small, tired smile. It had been a great night for Poetry Slam. Business was huge. Huge. The take was the most they’d ever done. The tip jar was overflowing, which meant extra gas money. It had been a great night, but she was exhausted. She hadn’t even been able to keep track of how many different variations of coffee she’d made that night. She could do ten more minutes, but beyond that . . .
Three men swaggered up to the counter to give David their closing orders. She avoided looking at them. One of the three, a man his friends called Jase, had twice tried to engage her in conversation. She’d given him a vague smile without meeting his eyes and stayed busy inventorying her various coffee beans both times.
“Hey, Cat,” Jase called out to her, overloud.
She winced and forced herself not to glance toward the corner where Ridley continued to read his book. She was all too aware he hadn’t missed both times Jase had tried to get her to converse.
“I can hear you, Jase,” she answered, without looking up.
“What’s it take?”
She made a mistake in pausing as she made his friend Marty his favorite latte. “I’m sorry?” she said, frowning a little, trying to puzzle out when he meant.
Ridley moved. He put down his book and stared hard at Jase.
“To fuck you. Tell me what it takes. We’re trying to figure that out and you’re giving us nothing.”
The coffee-house went utterly silent. David froze. Catarina blinked and Ridley was behind Jase, one hand on his shoulder. He spun the man around and punched him in the face. He hadn’t pulled back his arm for strength. It was a short punch, but Jase’s head snapped back on his shoulders and his legs turned to rubber. The only thing holding him up was Ridley’s hand on his shoulder.
“Ridley,” Catarina protested softly.
“Don’t speak,” Ridley snapped. “Just get this place shut down.” His eyes moved to each of Jase’s friends. “Either of you two got something you want to say before you leave? Because you’re leaving right now.”
Both took one look at the hard, implacable lines in his face, the smoldering golden eyes, and they shook their heads. Ridley, still holding Jase up, gestured toward the door. Without a word they turned and went out, Ridley trailing them, dragging a rubber-legged Jase with him. He thrust the man at the other two and wasn’t gentle about it.
He shut the door decisively and turned and walked back to his table. Applause broke out. The spectators liked their coffee.
Catarina glared at David, who was clapping along with the others. “You’re not helping. Don’t encourage him. He thinks I need protecting.”
“You do,” David said. “Jase is trouble.”
“I can take care of myself,” she muttered, sending Ridley a look that should have fried him on the spot. Not only did he not appear to fry, he looked a little amused.
She didn’t draw attention to herself. Not ever. Thanks to Ridley the entire room was aware of her as more than the barista, a body behind the coffee machine. She sighed and started the cleaning process. The coffee-house shut down at three and emptied. This time Ridley didn’t leave. He sat in the corner. She glanced up at him and scowled a couple of times, jerking her head toward him when David looked at her.
“He’s got to go, just like any other customer,” she hissed.
“I can hear you just fine,” Ridley said. “I’m walking home with you, so get used to it, Kitten. Just get your work done so we can get out of here.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” she demanded.
“No.” He didn’t even look up.
She shook her head, exasperated. Of course Jase would have to act like an ass in front of him and he’d use that to prove his point. She could have handled Jase, no problem.
She accepted her half of the tip money, shoving it into the pocket of her jeans. That much cash made her very happy. It was worth putting up with jerks like Jase until three in the morning to have extra money. She used every little bit she had to get extra lessons from Malcom. She’d been practicing a lot with her gun. That required time at the local range as well as ammunition. It didn’t come cheap.
Ridley fell into step beside her. She shot him a look from under her lashes. “You really don’t have to do this.”
“If you feel as if you owe me something, say thanks.”
“I feel as if I’d like to hit you over the head because clearly you aren’t listening,” she countered. It just burst out of her when she’d promised no sass. No attitude.
Just like earlier, his eyes immediately focused on her. He didn’t slow down. Didn’t miss a step, but suddenly his golden eyes were fixed on her with the same amused speculation. Total interest. And this time there was something else smoldering in his eyes. Something hot and sexy that sent a wave of fire rushing through her body, burning through her nerve endings and centering squarely between her legs like the hottest fireball imaginable.
Her breath hitched in her lungs. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk, shocked. Embarrassed. Terrified. He brought out something wild in her. Something uninhibited. Something she wanted no part of.
“I’m listening, woman. I’ll always listen to anything you have to say. You’re just talking a lot of crap right now so I’m dismissing what you have to say as the crap it is. Jase and his friends could just as easily be waiting for you. You don’t want them following you home, knowing where you live.”
“I’d know. I always know. I’ve been followed before and I handled it.”
He stopped abruptly, his fingers settling around her wrist, dragging her to a halt. “What the hell did you just say?” he demanded.
She blinked up at him. Major mistake revealing that piece of information. She should have kept that to herself. She licked her suddenly dry lips. Her heart pounded. She didn’t know how to defuse his anger. In his quiet, cool way he was angry, and that was more terrifying than if he’d yelled. It wasn’t his business, but she wasn’t going to tell him that.
“Something you need to know about me, Kitten. I don’t have a lot of patience. When I ask you something, I need you to answer. It isn’t that damned difficult. Just tell me what happened and how you handled it.”
His gold eyes burned like a flame, boring through her body. She licked her lips again. His hand tightened.
“And stop that. That’s going to get your ass in trouble. Just talk, Cat, say what I need to hear.”
She leveled a glare at him. “You are not in the least bit Zen, Ridley. Not even a little bit, and you have crushed one of my fantasies. I have to tell you, that’s just plain sad because I could work with that for a very long time.”
He blinked. He never blinked. Never broke his stare. That was one of the first observations she’d made about him, and he definitely blinked. Amusement crept right through all the sparkling anger.
“You thought I was Zen?” He began walking again, taking her with him, walking so close she could feel the heat of his body. He hadn’t relinquished her wrist, rather his hand slid down her arm to take possession of her fingers.
“The Zen master,” she said, “Which, by the way, was really cool, and now you’ve blown that all to hell.”
“So you were having fantasies about me?” The amusement definitely deepened.
She sent him a look of sheer reprimand from under her long lashes. “Newsflash for you, Ridley, every woman has fantasies about you. That’s your gift. But the fact that you just blew one of the biggest parts of my daydreams about you took your hotness down a notch or two. Zen was very ‘it’ for me. You rocked that cool vibe.”
“You have fantasies and daydreams about me?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know you’re freakin’ hot. The way you look at women, there’s not a doubt in my mind they’re all over you, and you’ve got that hound dog disdain.”
His eyebrow shot up. “Woman. You cannot tell me I’m the thing of fantasies in one breath and say I’m a hound dog in the next.”
She gave him a serious look. “They aren’t mutually exclusive. You are, right? A player? A hound dog? The kind of man who kicks a woman out of his bed right after sex and then loses her phone number?”
His eyes laughed at her. “I don’t take women to my bed, I’m usually in their beds, and I get up and leave. They know the score or I wouldn’t be in their beds in the first place.”
She nodded. “Yep. A player and a hound dog. And just so you know, telling you about my now completely blown fantasy does not mean I’m giving you the go-ahead to make a move on me. Fantasy and reality are two very different things.”
Catarina secretly hugged herself. She had forgotten it was fun talking to another person. She didn’t allow herself that luxury, not ever anymore. Well, sometimes with Malcom, but not like this. Not just saying anything that came into her head. Watching Ridley’s face lose the stone-carved effect and replacing it with laughter was fun. Just fun. She’d forgotten what that was like. Or truthfully, she hadn’t known about having fun in the first place.
They rounded the corner of the second block and started down the third before she remembered he was holding her hand. Before she realized she hadn’t taken a careful look around her to make certain no one was following. The smile inside slipped away. Vigilance was far more important than fun. She actually liked Ridley, even though she was certain he was too beautiful for any woman to ever keep. She didn’t want to be responsible for anything happening to him.
Catarina tried to slip her hand out of his, a subtle retreat, nothing overt that he would notice. He noticed. His hand tightened around hers and he looked down at her immediately. He had eyes that saw everything. He didn’t fail to see her gaze scanning the rooftops and the fire escapes as they passed the buildings.
“What is it?”
His voice was low. Velvet. So soft and perfect she nearly closed her eyes against the mesmerizing sound. She was fairly certain he could growl, she’d heard him do it once. Now, she thought he could probably purr as well. For some reason, the moment it came into her mind, her body reacted, going feminine on her. She decided it was him. Ridley just had a way with women and he was casting a spell.
“Nothing.” She was back to mumbling, her sense of fun fading along with her confidence.
She felt vulnerable and exposed walking beside him. Alone she could stay in the shadows, close to the building if there were no openings, slipping back toward the street if she couldn’t see directly into the alleyways and doorways. Ridley walked straight down the center of the sidewalk, head up, shoulders straight, and he looked like a man no one ever messed with. She was certain most men would take one look at him and scurry away.
Rafe Cordeau was not that kind of man. He would walk right up to Ridley, staring him straight in the eye, and without a single word slit his throat. Or his belly. Her fault. She glanced at their linked hands. Rafe would kill him. There would be no discussion and no way to stop him.
Her heart began to pound and she tasted fear in her mouth. “I don’t know you well enough to hold your hand and it makes me uncomfortable.”
It wasn’t a lie, although she’d enjoyed the moment with him, the moment of fun she’d always remember. Still, she was uncomfortable holding hands because she liked it—maybe a little too much. But she wasn’t a woman who could ever walk openly down a street with a man and feel comfortable. And she wasn’t naïve enough not to realize Ridley Cromer was way out of her league, even if she didn’t have hell following her around.
Ridley’s piercing gaze searched her face and then their surroundings. His eyes moved in a search pattern around them, the alleys, the streets, the alcoves and doorways. Only then did he look up toward the rooftops and fire escapes as she’d done.
“You’re afraid, Kitten, but not of me. Whatever it is you’re afraid of, know that when you’re with me, you’re perfectly safe.”
Supreme confidence. Ridley was a man who had been in dangerous situations, she could tell that. In some circumstances he was probably a very scary man, but no one was in Rafe’s class. No one. She couldn’t explain him to anyone, they’d think she was insane. They’d lock her up and make it easy for Rafe to come get her.
What had she been thinking? She’d let walking with a very attractive man override her good sense. Fun wasn’t worth getting someone killed.
She sent Ridley a quick look from under her lashes. It was there again. The expression that told her she’d made a terrible mistake revealing this side of her. She’d suppressed it for so long, it just came out, as unexpected to her as it was to him.
“I’m used to being alone, that’s all. I’m careful. I don’t want you to think I was flirting with you, I wasn’t.” And she hadn’t been. She didn’t even know how to flirt. She didn’t look at men. She’d made an art out of finding everywhere to look but at any man in the room with her. She’d trained herself from the time she was eleven years old.
“You don’t have to try to flirt, Kitten.” Ridley’s voice was soft, gentle even.
For some reason the way he spoke made her insides melt a little. Her body reacted to just the sound of his voice. She bit her bottom lip hard to try to counteract the effect.
“You smile at a man, or look at him with your gorgeous eyes, and he’s a goner. That’s just the reality of it.”
She refused to wrap herself up in his compliment. She’d never had compliments before. Not ever. Not personal. About her coffee maybe, but not like this. She couldn’t remember anyone being so fun. She’d had her first kindness from Malcom. Now she had her first best time with a man. She couldn’t keep him, but she could have the memories, and when she was alone, then she’d wrap herself up in his compliments and savor them.
The warehouses loomed on the next block. They turned the corner and crossed the street, angling toward the center one. It looked old from the outside. Old and tired. A single light illuminated a heavy door. There were three cargo doors, all padlocked. Ridley scowled at them.
“You didn’t tell me about the time you were followed. I’m still waiting to hear that story.”
She snuck a peek at his face from under her lashes. He was like a dog with a bone. She hadn’t distracted him at all. She sighed. Loudly. “Seriously, Ridley, it isn’t important.”
“That’s bullshit, Cat, and you know it. You’re scared of something. It’s not all that hard to tell. You walk everywhere, which means you don’t want to drive your car . . .”
“It doesn’t mean that,” she hissed. She stabbed at the number pad a little viciously, punching in the code to unlock the door. “Gas costs money.”
She was horrified that she blurted out the truth. It was just that he had such an edge to his voice, as if he knew all about her. She wasn’t doing her best job of running him off and she knew it was because she was lonely and he made her feel alive. Okay, happy even. There, she’d admitted it to herself. But it had to stop. She paused before she pushed open the door, her hand on the doorknob.
“Thanks for walking me home. I can take it from here.” She used her best dismissive voice. She’d had a lot of practice using that particular tone, and it was one of her best weapons. It didn’t even faze him. He kept moving, crowding her, pushing her inside.
“Ridley. Seriously. You did the white knight thing. We’re good.”
“We’re not good. What kind of man would let you walk into a warehouse without checking it out first to make certain you’re safe?” His hands settled on her waist and he picked her up, stepped inside and put her to the side of the door. “You stay right there.”
It was pitch-black inside, the way it always was. She had heavy drapes on all the windows to block out every bit of light so she could sleep during the day. That didn’t seem to faze him, although he swore under his breath as he took a careful look around.
For some reason, she thought he had a super power and could see in the dark. Maybe it had been the slow, careful perusal of the empty space, but she just stood there, not breathing, waiting for something, her heart pounding and her mouth dry.
He just said one word. But it was his voice. How he said it. The gentle, amused tone. She felt his voice slide in under her skin, slip into her bloodstream and rush straight like an arrow for her most feminine core. She hadn’t expected it.
Instantly there was heightened awareness. She smelled him. That faint masculine, almost wild smell, mountains and jungles and maybe a rain forest or two. He was so solid, all flowing muscle, his shoulders wide and his hips narrow. He moved with fluid grace, and heat radiated off of him, enveloping her.
She stepped back from his sheer potency. His hand instantly went to her waist, slid to settle on her hip.
“Catarina, I’m just going to make certain you’re safe.”
Thank God he thought she was frozen with fear, not flooded with female hormones at the worst possible moment. She cleared her throat, trying to get past the unfamiliar hunger rising like a tidal wave. The itch under her skin was terrible. It came in a wave, rising and falling, and deep inside something she feared above all else gave a lazy stretch, making its presence known.
She stepped back again and hit the wall, her breath coming in a long rush, but suddenly his touch was too hot, melting through her skin to brand her very bones. She felt something rise in him, wild and feral, trying to break free. The moment was fraught with danger. She didn’t move or speak, terrified if she did, something would happen that could never be taken back.
His fingers dug into her hip. Hard. Possessive. She felt the difference. The heat seared her. Scorched like a thousand flames. He went from being protective to predatory in one single moment. She felt the difference, felt the change sweep through him. A single sound escaped her throat. She heard it in the silence of the warehouse. Fear. Pure fear.
Instantly his hand dropped from her hip and moved to the nape of her neck. His fingers curled there. Gentle.
“Cat.” His voice was pure indulgence. “Nothing is going to happen to you. Tell me where the light switch is.”
She was acting crazy. She was letting fear dictate, fear and imagination. She wasn’t over her past. She would never be over it, and she’d never be truly free. She took a breath, forcing air to move through her burning lungs.
“Right by the door as you walk in. Just about a foot above the door handle.”
He flicked the light on immediately and she found herself staring up into his eyes. They looked like gold to her. Ancient Florentine gold. His eyes glittered down at her. For a moment she saw speculation. The interest he’d shown when she gave him attitude, but there was no aggression in them. Nothing in the least bit predatory. Just a man being kind to a woman who lived alone. A man taking charge.
“Are you all right?”
She nodded, feeling like a complete idiot. She knew danger and there was none radiating from this man at all. She bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I don’t have men in my space.” How lame was that?
His hand slid her hat from her head and handed it to her. “You have a big space here, Kitten. Stay here and let me look around.”
His eyes didn’t leave her face and she couldn’t move, only nod slowly. His gaze drifted over her as if inspecting her carefully. Seeing her. Seeing too much. She had secrets to hide. Not little tiny secrets, huge ones. She couldn’t afford a man like this around her. He took in too much. Saw past every guard. And for some reason she wasn’t very good at keeping things under wraps around him.
Abruptly he turned away and began to walk around the warehouse. Not walk—he prowled. He moved like a great jungle cat, all flowing muscle, fluid and absolutely silent. He was a thing of beauty to watch. He moved with absolute confidence, and she doubted if he missed anything.
His gaze searched the high places as well as the low. She could see he was systematically checking every concealed space and yet at the same time, seeing everything. There wasn’t much to see. Mostly, the warehouse was empty. It was a single story, very long and very wide. What had been an office was now her bedroom.
Malcom had begun work on renovating the warehouse some years ago and then stopped when he met his wife. She hadn’t been so enamored with the idea of living in the warehouse district. He had thought it would be nice to have his apartment and dojo together so he’d bought the building. He met his wife four months later.
She was very happy it had taken Malcom four months to meet the woman he had fallen madly in love with. That meant he’d worked on the warehouse. She had a makeshift bathroom and a really good bedroom space. Her kitchen area was the most finished of any room. She had a sink, counter, stove and small fridge. Malcom had started with a kitchen and bathroom, paying most attention to the fact that he liked to eat properly because he worked out so much.
“You have a hose for a shower.”
Of course he would notice that.
“It’s still in the building phase,” she admitted. Since he was talking now, she assumed there was no one ready to jump out and murder her. She trailed after him, moving quickly to catch up.
He was in her bedroom, looking carefully around him. His gaze took in everything, the bed, the small safe on the floor beside the bed and her beat-up chair. She refused to be embarrassed. She’d found the chair at a thrift store and it was comfortable. Ignoring him she went to the safe, opened it and shoved her tip money inside.
The bedroom had three walls. The fourth was open to the warehouse floor. Straight ahead was her heavy bag hanging from the ceiling, a mat and a speed bag. She’d spent precious dollars on her equipment but felt it was a necessary expenditure.
“Nice workout area.”
She looked at him over her shoulder, trying not to look too proud. He took up her entire bedroom area. Before she thought it was a lot of space for a bedroom, now it seemed small.
“I like to work out.”
“It shows when you’re in the dojo.”
He wandered out of her bedroom area and into the workout space, his hand moving over the heavy bag. A stroke with his open palm. Almost a caress. Her heart fluttered. They had one thing in common—clearly he liked to work out as well.
“Malcom is a good instructor.” He made it a statement.
Catarina was uncertain how to respond. “I think so. He certainly has helped me learn fast.”
“You’re a good student. I’ve watched. He tells you something once and you’ve got it. You listen and you don’t get upset when he critiques you.”
“I pay him a lot of money. I don’t want him to tell me how good I am, I want him to tell me everything I’m doing wrong so I can get better.”
“Unusual,” he commented, and moved around the heavy bag. His gaze took in her neatly shelved equipment, the gloves and the small weights. “You’re really serious about learning.”
“I wouldn’t spend the money on it if I wasn’t.”
“Why the gun?”
She stiffened. The gun was hidden beneath her pillow. He wasn’t looking at her and his voice was casual, but she knew it wasn’t a casual question.
“Cat.” Now he did look at her, one arm still circling the heavy bag. “Why the gun?”
She swallowed. Tried to shrug. “Woman alone in large warehouse.”
“Can you shoot?”
“Yes. I practice just like I do my self-defense.” That much was honest.
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid,” she denied, a blatant lie this time. “I’m careful.”
His eyes cut to her. Looked inside her. Saw too much. She looked away first. “I’m safe, Ridley. And I really do appreciate you taking the time to walk me home and check out the warehouse, but everything’s okay now.”
He didn’t move. Didn’t take his eyes from her. She pressed her lips together. Even with the warehouse as large as it was, he took up space.
“You have bars on your windows. You have a gun. You spend money you don’t have on self-defense lessons, and Malcom told me you’re working on weapons training as well. Knives, arnis sticks. Is someone threatening you?” There was a hard edge to his voice.
She spread her hands out in front of her. “I don’t know you.”
“You know me well enough. I’m working with Malcom. I teach women self-defense. I don’t like when they’re threatened. Or if they’re afraid.”
It was impossible not to hear the ring of truth in his voice. He was definitely the kind of man who would protect his woman by any means he needed.
“I’m just . . . careful,” she reiterated.
“All right. We’ll leave it at that, but your security system sucks. You need alarms and cameras on this place. The cargo doors, the windows, front door. Motion detectors. That’s my field of expertise, and even with what you’ve done, you’re still vulnerable.”
She knew that. She could only do one thing at a time and she had to prioritize. She always divided her money carefully. Bills and paying back the money she’d taken from Rafe’s safe first and then the rest on security. “I’m getting there.”
“You need to get there faster.” Again there was an edge to his voice. Impatience.
She glanced up and her gaze collided with his. It was a mistake. The golden glitter was back and she actually felt the edge of his anger. She moistened suddenly dry lips with the tip of her tongue and his gaze dropped to her mouth and softened instantly.
Her body reacted again, the strange electric awareness she felt in her breasts, up her thighs, in her belly and between her legs. It was instantaneous and powerful, so strong she couldn’t move. Her breathing changed. She heard smooth go to ragged. Her lungs burned for air.
His eyes went molten. Hungry. He took a step toward her. Catarina threw her hand up, stepping back, shaking her head. He stopped instantly, his fist closing around the chain suspending the heavy workout bag, knuckles going white.
“I’m not used to having anyone around me for very long,” she admitted in a low voice, hoping he would just understand and leave. “I don’t have great social skills. This is difficult for me.”
“Are you afraid of me?”
She wanted to close her eyes against the smooth, velvet tone. She needed to block out the look on his face. Carved. Hungry. The hot flames in his eyes. His eyes. She felt as if a ravenous beast of prey had turned his attention fully on her, focused and deadly, and now that she had his attention, he wasn’t going to ever be diverted.
She swallowed the lie and went for a half-truth. “Maybe. I don’t know.” She was terrified of him. She had no idea why he was there or how she’d let him this far into her life. It wasn’t like her. It went against every rule she had. It went against common sense. She’d worked hard to get to a place where she could live free and enjoy her life, but at the same time make certain everyone around her was safe. This was not safe. Not by any stretch of the imagination. She had no idea how Ridley Cromer ended up in her warehouse, in her personal living space.
He had to leave. Right now. His scent would be all over the warehouse. She didn’t even like Malcom to visit, or work on anything because she knew he would leave behind his scent. Ridley’s was much more aggressive . . . and . . . and interested. She tried not to panic.
“I’m going to design a security system for you,” he said, and walked away from her, putting distance between them, studying the lofts that had been built to hold freight. “It wouldn’t take that many cameras. A few motion detectors. Nothing fancy.”
“I’m saving,” she told him, trying not to sound as if she was choking.
“I didn’t say anything about paying,” he snapped.
She winced. His voice was a lash. He really, really was a nut about a woman being safe. She took a breath and let it out.
“I know you didn’t. You’re being kind and I appreciate that, but I’ll keep saving and eventually I’ll be able to pay for a good security system.” She was proud of the “firm” in her voice.
He turned his head and shot her a look of absolute impatience. “What the hell kind of crap is that, Cat? You’re living here now. You admitted to me you were followed once already. A woman looking like you, living alone in a warehouse in this district, is just plain nuts.”
“It’s my home and I happen to love it. And this area isn’t that bad.”
“The coffee-house is situated on the edge of ‘not bad.’ This warehouse is in the ‘bad.’ We passed three bars. We passed a pawn shop and two tattoo parlors. A biker gang hangs out on the third block and they’re rough as hell.”
She’d seen them. She was very alert to potential problems and that was why she was careful to stay in the shadows and not walk down the center of the sidewalk where everyone could see her. He didn’t get that.
He sighed. Ran a hand through his dark, thick hair. He had nice hair and when he messed it up like that it was even nicer.
“Your next day off is day after tomorrow. I’ll be here in the morning to install your security system. You know how I like my coffee.”
She glared at him. “How would you know when my next day off is?”
He flashed her a grin. “Kitten. Come on. I pay attention. David has a big mouth and he was bemoaning the fact that half the patrons know when your day off is and they don’t bother to show. Apparently they come for your coffee. I know when your day off is because I go to Poetry Slam for your coffee as well.”
“You do?” Her heart started beating normally again. That made sense.
“I do. You make kick-ass coffee. I was hoping you might have a machine here.”
“Those machines are thousands of dollars.”
“Still, you make great coffee. You don’t even have a small machine.”
“Because I’m saving for a security system.”
“I see. Well I’m installing that day after tomorrow so you can use your funds for a small machine and give me my fix while I work.”
“You’re not paying for my security system.”
“Because nothing in this world comes without a price tag.”
For a moment his golden eyes went glittery again and then they seemed to melt into masculine amusement. “You’re right about that.”
“My price is your coffee, Kitten. Lots of it. And then, if I get finished, we can spar a little. I’ve got a few moves that might help you.”
He turned and walked away from her toward the door without once looking back. She stood there with her mouth open.
“You going to lock this door?” He paused at the door, turning his head to stare at her over his shoulder, a small grin hovering around his mouth, lighting his eyes.
“It locks automatically.”
He nodded and sauntered out. It took her a full three minutes before she was breathing correctly again. She had no idea what just happened or how she was supposed to feel about it, so she did what she always did, she lost herself in her regular routine.
THE buzz was persistent. Really persistent. Annoyingly so. Catarina groaned and rolled over, her hair falling around her face, spilling across the pillow and covering her eyes and nose. The stupid buzzer blasted through the warehouse, as if someone leaned on it. It wasn’t designed to be musical. It was loud and sounded like an alarm. She put the pillow over her head and held it there in hopes of drowning out the noise, but apparently, whoever had owned the warehouse before Malcom had been totally deaf.
“All right,” she yelled, throwing the pillow and fighting her way out of the covers. She kicked several times, destroying her perfectly made-up bed, and sat up, sweeping back the mass of dark, wavy hair. It was everywhere. She looked around vaguely for a clip to tame the thick length, but the buzzer persisted, louder than ever.
“Seriously?” she muttered, and leapt to her feet, stalking through the warehouse to the front door. She flung it open, scowling ominously with blurry vision. “Are you crazy? It’s like three o’clock in the morning.”
Ridley stood there. Tall. Looking amazing. Refreshed and looking amazing. Seriously hot and amazing. “You. Are. Nuts.” She tried to close the door in his face.
He stuck his boot in the door. “Step back, Kitten, I’m coming in and I’ve got my hands full.”
He pushed open the door, and she pushed back. He was stronger, so the door swung his way. She clenched her teeth and stepped back, allowing him entry. He was carrying boxes and bags, which meant his hands were tied up.
“Cat, why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like you don’t have two of your weapons and I could kick you in the thigh very hard and give you a dead leg? Like that? And then do a sweep and take both your legs out from under you? Am I giving you that kind of look? And then roll your body right out my front door? Because I’m contemplating how much of an effort that would be.”
His mouth twitched. She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Of course, because you’re the most annoying man on earth, I’d have to find the wire to cut that buzzer and stop it from ever working. You’re the type that would just lay on it and wake a girl up when she just went to bed.”
“I always say dream big if you’re going to do it,” he said, not in the least bit worried. “And it’s not three in the morning, baby, it’s more like nine.”
He stared down at her from his lofty height, which only annoyed her more.
“You walked me home again last night. You know when I got to bed. This is my three o’clock in the morning.” When he didn’t turn and leave, she threw her hands in the air and then had to shove again at the wild mass of hair tumbling down to her waist.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re grumpy when you wake up?”
“As I don’t wake up around anyone, no, they haven’t.”
His eyes went pure gold, moving over her in the slow, intense way she was coming to recognize as his taking in everything. Her breath hitched in her lungs when he looked at her.
Ridley couldn’t take his eyes off Catarina. Her sweatpants rode low on her hips. Her tank molded to her breasts, and she wasn’t thin. She had curves, and he liked a woman with curves. She hid them under baggy clothes, but they were there, a little too curvy by normal standards, but certainly not by his. She had a very small waist and a narrow rib cage, which only served to emphasize the curve of her hips and butt and her breasts. Her tank was just that little bit too short, baring her midriff, and she had unbelievable skin. She didn’t wear makeup ever that he’d seen. Maybe lip gloss once in a while, but right now her lips were bare, along with her feet.
Her hair was wild. Bedroom wild. Sexy wild. And then on top of everything else she had those eyes. Large, framed with long thick black lashes, her eyes were unbelievable, and he wanted them staring straight into his when he was buried deep in her body. He wanted to see how those eyes changed when he gave her an orgasm.
He swore to himself. She wasn’t very old, not in years, but in her eyes, she was a million years old. That wasn’t a green light, he knew that. She was terrified, absolutely terrified, and he detested that. No woman should ever have to live in fear. She was always in flight mode. He knew she was preparing herself to fight, but right now, all he’d seen was her hiding herself away, her silence, baggy clothes and downcast eyes. That was Catarina in full flight.
He wanted to help her, to find a way to let her live in daylight. Along with her looks and that smile of hers, she made him laugh. He couldn’t remember laughing in a hell of a long time. And then she had that attitude. Looks, humor and attitude—hell—he was a goner. That made the situation a lot more dangerous. The last thing he needed was any chemistry between them. Hell. He was fucked. There were moments when the chemistry was off the charts. He couldn’t lie to himself about that. He had to be careful with her. Sex wasn’t going to help her situation, at least not now.
“My God, Kitten, you’re gorgeous. You’re fucking beautiful.” He couldn’t help himself. He had to tell her, because she didn’t know. He knew when women thought they were beautiful, and this one had no idea.
Catarina’s heart stuttered. Another compliment from Ridley, and it sounded genuine. She should have been just a little upset over the way he sounded, as if he was astonished, but no one had ever said anything like that to her before. Not ever. She blinked at him and all the attitude melted away. She didn’t know what to say so she turned her back on him and walked toward her bedroom.
“Wait.” His voice was low. Sexy.
She felt heat spreading. Looking over her shoulder at him, she raised an eyebrow, afraid to trust her voice.
“I brought coffee. I wasn’t certain if you were up already, but I couldn’t carry it and the boxes. Two cups sitting right outside your door.” He didn’t wait to see if she’d get them, he just stalked through her living space and left her to it.
Catarina took a deep breath. She had no idea how Ridley managed to get past her guard. No one ever did that, but he didn’t even seem to notice she had barriers up at all. He didn’t see her shields and she certainly wasn’t invisible to him.
“Do you have any tools? I should have asked you that.”
She yanked open the door and there were two cups from Poetry Slam sitting right outside where he’d said they would be. She brought them in, taking a sip of the one that was marked latte. Not as good as she made, but passable. She needed the caffeine if she was going to deal with Ridley Cromer. Last night he hadn’t come inside, in fact if anything, he’d seemed a little distracted. He hadn’t mentioned the security system again, so she had hoped he would forget all about it. Evidently he hadn’t.
“Malcom may have left a few lying around. He keeps most of his things in that corner over there.” She waved her hand toward what she considered Malcom’s mess. She didn’t ever touch his things, so she didn’t go near them, otherwise she’d never be able to stop herself from straightening everything up.
The bed was her goal—to make it, not sleep in it. She caught his grin when he glanced into her bedroom and saw the covers all over the floor and partially off the bed.
“You really wake up in a mood, don’t you? I can’t believe no one’s ever mentioned it.”
She turned to face him. Throwing coffee would not only be childish, but stupid when she needed it. Besides, if she had to, she could always throw his cup at him.
“No one ever sees me in the morning because I live alone.”
“You can’t have lived alone your entire life, woman. Someone has to know you’re a grump.” Amusement crept into his tone.
He sorted through the boxes without looking at her—a good thing, because she stiffened and then froze, her heart pounding in her throat. This kind of thing was exactly why she didn’t let anyone into her life. She tasted fear in her mouth.