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"I remember when you used to stroke me like that."
Marisela Morales punctuated her pickup line by blowing on the back of Francisco Vega's neck. She watched the soft downy strands on his nape spike and knew her luck had finally turned around.
His fingers, visible as she glanced over his shoulder, drew streaks through the condensation on his beer bottle. Up and down. Slow and straight. Lazy, but precise. He toyed with his cerveza the same way he'd once made love to her, and for a split second, a trickle of moist heat curled intimately between Marisela's thighs. For the moment, the part of her Frankie used to oh-so-easily manipulate was safe, encased beneath silky panties and skin-tight, hip-hugging jeans.
Tonight, she'd have him but on her terms. The hunter had found her prey. Now, she just had to bring him in.
"I don't remember taking time for slow strokes when you and me got busy, niña."
Marisela sighed, teasing his neck with her hot breath one more time before she slid onto the bar stool next to his. She'd been trying to track the man down for nearly a week. Who knew Frankie would turn up at an old haunt? Since they'd parted ways, Club Electric, a white box on the outside, hot joint on the inside, had changed names, hands, and clientele a good dozen times. But a few things remained constant the music, the raw atmosphere and the availability of men like Frankie, who defined the word caliente.
Like the song said, Hot, hot, hot.
"We were young then," Marisela admitted with a shrug, loosening the holster strap that cradled the cherished 9mm
Taurus Millennium she wore beneath her slick leather jacket. "Now, I'm all grown up."
Marisela wiggled her crimson fingernails at Theresa, the owner of the club. The way the older woman's face lit up, Marisela figured she was going to get more than a drink. Damn. Marisela loved Theresa as if she were her aunt, but now wasn't the time for...
"Oh, Marisela! Mija, how can I thank you for what you did?"
The sentiment was as loud as it was sincere. So she'd done a nice thing for Theresa. The world didn't have to know. Good deeds could ruin her reputation.
And a simple thank-you wasn't enough for Theresa. She stepped up onto the shelf on the other side of the bar and practically launched herself into Marisela's arms. Rolling her eyes at Frankie, Marisela gave the owner a genuine squeeze. She deserved as much. She was a good listener, kept great secrets and mixed the best Cuba Libre in town.
"De nada, Theresa," Marisela said, gently disentangling herself. She appreciated the woman's gratitude, but she had work to do.
"Anything for you. Anytime. For you, drinks are on the house from now on, okay? You and...your friend."
Even as she tried to be the courteous hostess, Theresa's voice faltered when her eyes met Frankie's. Marisela's ex hadn't been in the neighborhood for years. And in that time, he'd aged. His skin, naturally dark, now sported a rough texture, complete with a scar that traced just below his bottom lip. His jaw seemed sharper and his once perfect nose now shifted slightly to the right likely the result of an untreated break. Even if he hadn't matured from a devilish boy to a clearly dangerous man, he likely wouldn't be recognized by anyone but Marisela and a few others who'd once known him well the very "others" Marisela had made sure wouldn't come into Club Electric again, on Theresa's behalf.
"I never say no to free booze," Marisela answered. "Gracias, Theresa."
Theresa blew Marisela a kiss, patted her cheek, then moved aside to work on her drink. To most people, a Cuba Libre was just rum and Coke with lime. To Marisela, it was a taste of heaven.
"What did you do for her?" Frankie asked, his voice even, as if he wasn't really curious.
Marisela knew better. She slid her arms on the bar, arching her back, working out the kinks in her spine while giving Frankie an unhampered view of her breasts. She didn't want him to waste his curiosity on what she'd done for Theresa; she wanted to pique his interest another way.
"Last week, las Reinas chose this bar as their new hangout. Not quite the clientele Theresa has in mind. Gangs aren't exactly good for business. I politely asked them to pick someplace else."
"Politely?" Frankie asked, his dark eyebrows bowed over his hypnotic eyes. "Last I remember, las Reinas didn't respond well to polite."
Marisela shrugged. She'd earned a great deal of respect from her former gang by choosing to bleed out. She'd used every fighting skill she'd ever learned, every survival instinct she'd ever experienced, to escape a lifelong bond to the gang. But she'd survived. Barely.
"They've learned some manners while you've been gone. Lots of things have changed. Like," she said, snagging his beer around the neck and taking a sip, "I don't settle for fast and furious no more."
Frankie didn't move a muscle. "Is that so?"
She smoothed her tongue over her teeth, then licked the lip of his bottle, careful not to smudge her ruby red lipstick. He snagged his drink back and chugged, his gaze locked on her mouth. Frankie always had a thing for her lips. Marisela thought they resembled something between Angelina Jolie and a grouper, but Frankie considered her thick, pouty flesh mighty fine. A detail she intended to use to her advantage, now that she'd found the man.
Theresa delivered her rum and Coke, tall and icy with a wedge of lime. After another wary glance at Frankie, she left them alone.
"So you come here a lot?" he asked.
"Where else am I gonna go? This is West Tampa, not Miami. We've got one club and this is it."
"There's always Ybor City."
"If you don't mind drunks who can't dance and ridiculous cover charges. This is still the neighborhood hot spot. You'd know that if you came around more."
"I've been busy," he answered, draining the rest of his beer.
She sipped her spiked cola. "And how was prison?"
He chuckled, slid his beer bottle away. "Big party," he quipped. "I got out two years ago."
"Really? I hadn't heard."
He snorted. He likely knew as well as she did that the precise location and activities of all the neighborhood kids young, old, and in between were reported, catalogued, and reported again from the shiny vinyl chairs of Viola's Beauty Parlor, two blocks south of Columbus Drive. Their mothers both had standing appointments every weekend. And thanks to Aida Morales's devotion to the Saturday morning religion of gossip and speculation, Marisela knew precisely what Frankie had been up to over the last decade as if she'd been there herself. Gang. Prison. Dock work in Miami. Nothing too complicated.
Then a week ago, he'd shown up in Tampa uninvited and unexpected. After less than an hour in town, he'd been arrested for possession. Thanks to his parents, he'd made bail and then he'd promptly disappeared.
Which was why she was here.
"So what have you been up to, Marisela?"
Her turn to snort. "Nothing too exciting. I did nails for a while. Worked at Wal-Mart. Graduated to Saks. Did some phone work and filing for Alberto Garcia, on the side. Now, I'm looking again."
She conveniently left out the parts his mother couldn't possibly have told him. Hardly anyone knew that her work for Alberto went beyond answering calls and shoveling papers. The owner of AAA-Able Bail Bonds had helped her out when her gang activity landed her in juvie. Instead of processing the teen and sending her on her way, he'd promised her a job. A real job. One where she'd put her fighting skills and gun experience to good use. She'd run little errands for him and trained her ass off until she turned twenty-one. Then, he'd put her in enforcement. For seven years, she'd tracked down bail-jumping bozos all across the state.
But Alberto had been careful not to send her into her own neighborhood to pick up strays. Called it a conflict of interest. So her secret life was safe. A good thing, too, since Frankie might not be so anxious to relive a little heat from their past if he knew she still carried a gun.
Illegally, but that was a fact she continued to ignore. She'd lost her license to carry and immediately thereafter, her position with AAA-Able. But she hadn't given up her piece. What the cops didn't know wouldn't hurt them, but ditching her weapon could get her killed.
"So, you're short on cash," Frankie said with a nod, his lips slightly pursed, hinting that maybe he knew more than she'd hoped.
"Chasing deadbeats doesn't appeal anymore?"
Damn. Frankie might have been away for a while, but he obviously still had contacts. Still, she wiggled her newly polished nails, the index fingers tipped with tiny fake diamonds, and hoped to play down his knowledge of her enforcement activities. "Too hard on the manicure."
He chuckled. "Were you good?"
She sipped her Cuba Libre, enjoying the burst of the sweet carbonation against the smooth tang of the rum. "I'm good at lots of things."
Man, Frankie had some incredible eyes. Technically, they were hazel, but the flecks of green glittered as deep and vivid as fine oriental jade. Offset by his swarthy skin, his irises simmered with hot intentions every one of which Marisela could imagine in great detail.
"Wanna dance?" she asked, flicking a glance at the dance floor. At Club Electric, the music pulsed as hard and bright as the neon lights. The minute Marisela allowed herself to acknowledge the sounds, the rhythm seeped into her veins. Her shoulders and hips rocked and her feet itched to hit the dance floor and work off some of the fiery vibe slashing between her and Frankie.
"No," he answered.
She didn't hide her disappointment, pushing her lips into a thick pout. "Why not?"
"Not in the mood."
She leaned forward, her lips inches from his ear as the crowd around them whooped and sang a chorus of "Yo Viviré," a cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," by Celia Cruz. "I can always put you in the mood, Frankie." She shimmied her shoulders ever so slightly. "Like no other woman ever could."
"We were young, Marisela. Didn't take much to put either of us in the mood."
She laughed, punched him in the shoulder then downed a few more gulps of her drink. A flush of warm heat surrounded her skin and she didn't know if the reaction stemmed from their proximity to the writhing masses of dancers or from being so close, and yet so far, from her first love.
Back in high school, she and Frankie had melted more than one dance floor not to mention the damage they'd done to various backseats. He'd loved her wild ways, her innate curiosity. She'd wanted to explore the world, find her place outside the tight community she loved, but still resented. To date, she hadn't gone anywhere too exotic, but her ambitions hadn't died, even if they were harder to pursue with bills hitting the mailbox like baseball-size hail.
Even after he'd chosen his gang over her, he'd kept her secrets. He'd never popped off to his hombres about her sexual appetites. The worst thing he'd ever done was break her teenage heart.
Now she was about to screw him in the worst possible way. Or maybe, the best way? Didn't matter. Bottom line she was going to royally piss him off, although for a good cause.
A very noble cause. The noblest. Marisela may have skirted the law from time to time well, she'd actually flashed and mooned the law on one or two occasions but give her a benevolent purpose and she could be downright patriotic. And ruthless. Not that she needed a good reason to spend a little quality time with sexy, dangerous, Frankie Vega. But lucky for her, she had a good reason all the same. He was about to jump bail and she was going to stop him.
She finished her drink, slipped her fingers into her jacket pocket, threw a ten onto the bar, and nodded toward the door.
"If you don't want to dance, let's go."
She twisted off the bar stool, but Frankie moved only to tilt his head toward hers so she'd hear him over the music and the crowd.
"How do you know I'm not waiting for someone?"
Surrendering to her instincts, Marisela drew one of her long fingernails over Frankie's angular jawline. "I don't. But you just got a better offer."
Knowing she had to seal the deal, she dropped her touch slowly down his neck, until the ruby red enamel on her nail sparkled beside the gold chain he'd worn since his confirmation. Unlike the other Cuban-American males in this part of the world, Frankie didn't dangle a crucifix or saint's medallion from the necklace. No sense in contradicting his daily activities. He wore the gold serpentine necklace flush to his dark skin, even if the links probably pinched the hell out of his chest hair every once in a while.
Marisela grabbed his open collar and with surprise on her side, yanked him to his feet. Frankie wasn't the tallest man in the world just shy of six feet but to her tall-for-her-genes five foot seven, he towered over her just enough so she could glance through the veil of her eyelashes when she spoke.
"Do you understand what I'm offering?"
Before he could answer, she slipped her free hand between them and cupped her palm over the bulge in his jeans. She smiled, a thrill streaking through her like lightning.
He was hard. As a rock. Thinking he'd want her again was one thing. Knowing stole her breath.
Like the charmer he was, Frankie seized her winded moment and kissed her. Not hot and impatient like he used to. Oh, no. The son of a bitch took his time, pressing his lips against hers like a warm iron on a silk blouse, careful not to scorch her by pressing too hard. His hands inched from her hips to her ribs, his fingers tantalizing the bared skin of her midriff with hungry, yet contained caresses.
Harvesting all her self-control, Marisela forced a step back, breaking the connection so quickly, Frankie's lips were still puckered.
He had the audacity to grin as if he'd been the one to push her away.
"Blast from the past too much for you, vidita?"
Marisela slipped her hands into the pocket of her jacket. Feeling the handcuffs she'd hidden there, she remembered the true purpose of this seduction.
She scooted away from her stool, away from him knowing he had every motivation to follow. "Too much for me?" she asked, sassy and doubtful at the same time. "I'm just getting started."
Copyright © 2005 by Book Goddess, LLC