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Lipstick On His Collar
By Dawn Atkins
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
When the woman in red burst through the door, everything at the Backstreet Bar stopped dead - the talking, the drinking, the smoking. And Nick Ryder's heart. For a second, anyway.
Women rarely came to the Backstreet, and never alone, and this was one hot woman. Her red dress hugged curves all the way to her spiked heels, and a diamond necklace sizzled around her neck. She stood there, breathing hard, her black hair a mane around her face, letting her eyes adjust to the dimness, while everyone stared - the off-duty cops at the tables, the regulars at the bar, even the guy about to kiss the seven into the corner pocket.
What the hell she was doing here, Nick couldn't imagine. The Backstreet was a great place to throw back a brew with his squad mates at the end of a shift - dark and quiet, with a well-worn bar and a beat-up jukebox that only played blues - but to a woman like her, the place would be a dive.
She seemed to realize that and was turning for the door, when her gaze hit him square in the face. She paused, a smile flickered, then she headed straight for him. Had to be the reassuring look women claimed he had. The protect-and-serve thing had gone bone deep, he guessed.
She looked like trouble. Expensive trouble. But watching the tissue-thin dress slide over her breasts, hipsand long, long legs, he thought, What the hell. He didn't have anything else to do tonight except play pool, and he could always play pool.
For a second he thought he heard bells, but it was just a car alarm outside.
The lady in red slid onto the stool beside him, her perfume overpowering the mist of beer, ancient nachos, and cigar smoke that wreathed the place, gave him a sad smile, then took a breath so shaky he had the urge to pat her. Instead, he tipped his beer mug in salute and smiled.
She accepted the gesture, then turned her attention to Ben, the bartender, who sliced Nick a look - what have we here? - before saying to her, "What'll it be, ma'am?"
"A Santiago martini, please."
"Just a martini. Very dry. No olives, onions, or twist. Float a few ice slivers, and be sure the glass is cold."
"Comin' right up." Ben shot Nick a look. High maintenance.
When the drink arrived, she took it straight down like medicine, then gasped, pounding the bar with an open palm so that glasses rattled all the way along the mahogany counter. Nice nails, Nick noticed. Perfectly squared with a white edge. French, he thought, was the style. His ex had gone for the high-end stuff, too. On this woman, high-end seemed like minimum basic requirements.
"You okay?" Nick asked. He handed her a napkin to wipe her eyes, which had watered from the gin. They were puffy, too, so he knew she'd been crying.
"Thanks." She dabbed under each eye.
"Name's Nick," he said.
She zeroed in on him for a long moment. "Miranda," she finally said.
"Nice name." His peripheral vision caught Ben rolling his eyes, so he shot him an up-yours look, then focused on Miranda.
She lifted her glass at Ben, who was pretending to be drying glasses while he eavesdropped. "Another one of these, please." She turned back to Nick. "Nick's a good name." She pondered his face. "Solid ... masculine ... dependable."
What the hell could he say to that? "My mother liked it."
As soon as Ben delivered the martini, ice slivers and all, Miranda tapped it against Nick's mug. "Cheers, Nick," she said, then gulped the drink. She gasped once, then blinked hard. "Whew."
"You're tossing those back awful fast."
His curiosity got the better of him. "So, what's the deal?"
She turned her body toward him, nailed him with a look. "Tell me something, Nick. Do I strike you as sexless?"
It was his turn to choke on his drink. "I mean, do I seem like a woman who doesn't like sex?"
This was a minefield Nick didn't care to stumble through. "I wouldn't know about that."
"I like sex as much as the next woman," she declared, though she didn't sound convinced. She looked him over, making every muscle in his body tighten. "Like, for example, I could see myself having sex with you - no problem."
"Glad to hear it," he said. He heard Ben snort. Okay, real lame, but, hell, how was he supposed to respond? Your place or mine?
"Theoretically, of course," she said.
"Oh, of course." His parts eased a bit. Miranda swiveled back to the bar. "Hit me again," she said, clinking her glass on the counter. She was oddly blunt for a woman so obviously refined. That made him smile and intrigued him a little.
"You might want to let the first two breathe," Nick warned. "Straight gin packs a wallop."
"I certainly hope so." Still, Nick caught Ben's eye to make sure he would dilute the drink. Otherwise, Miranda would be throwing up her guts in the bar's less-than-elegant john, and it would be a shame to ruin that incredible dress. He could practically see the texture of her skin through the fabric.
"What brings you to the Backstreet?" he asked. She stood out in this place like a Ferrari Testerosa in a Kmart parking lot. Her dress was designer, her hair perfect, her makeup as artful as a model's, and the diamonds she wore flashed the myriad prisms of the real deal. Pure class. In fact, she was exactly the kind of pampered female he had no interest in - the kind his ex-wife Debbie had aspired to be but couldn't manage on Nick's salary.
"It was handy," she said, shrugging.
"You seem a little overdressed for this place is all." She wasn't a suspect he was interrogating, but he had to figure her out.
"I was somewhere more formal, and I -" She glanced at him but couldn't meet his eyes. "I got some bad news, so I had to get away. I just came in. On impulse."
"Yeah. I tend to jump into things without thinking, and then regret it later." She looked sad, but not down for the count.
"How about now? You gonna regret this?" The words came softer than he'd intended, but her shaky bravery got to him.
She looked at him for a long, silent minute. "No," she said finally. "Not this time."
Her words cracked his customary cool and he said what he felt. "I'm glad."
She flashed him a smile so bright it hurt, and he wanted more - more smiles, more Miranda. The urge to help her gripped him like a fist.
Just then, Ben set the watered-down drink in front of her, offering a welcome distraction. She lifted the glass, tapped it against Nick's stein, then chugged it, immediately motioning to Ben for another. "They always water their drinks?" she muttered to Nick.
Nick winced. "How about if you let the third one percolate?"
She seemed to consider his words, how she felt, then nodded slowly. "We'll see."
"Care to share the bad news?"
"Oh, that." Miranda's smile slipped, and she snatched her lip between her teeth before she continued. "Let's just say I'm no longer engaged." She tossed back her hair, sending a wave of dense perfume his way.
Excerpted from Lipstick On His Collar by Dawn Atkins Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.