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You don't belong here….
The skin tingled on the nape of Paige Culver's neck, and she shivered. To assure herself she was alone, she glanced around her small, windowless office. Light penetrated the green glass shade of the lamp on her desk but didn't dissipate the shadows clinging to the worn-brick walls.
You don't belong here….
That voice wasn't real; it had to be only in her head. Her own voice verbalizing the doubts that had tormented her since she'd bought Club Underground. She was a lawyer. What the hell did she know about running a lounge?
Actually, she wasn't a lawyer anymore—at least not one with a firm where she could practice. So she'd bought the club, which occupied the basement of a traditional brick office building in downtown Zantrax, the city which had replaced Detroit as the urban metropolis of Michigan. The building was the only thing traditional about Club Underground.
Music throbbed through the sound system, tempting Paige to leave the office and join the action. She pushed paperwork aside and stood up, swaying slightly on her stilettos as nerves assailed her again.
Opening night. Actually, reopening night, under new management, but yet she'd hidden herself back here, away from the club patrons. Would everyone else think, as she did, that she did not belong here?
"To hell with them," she murmured with the flash of pride and stubbornness that sometimes irritated the people she cared about. And to hell with what she thought, too. "There's no turning back now…."
With a slightly trembling hand, she smoothed down her flyaway strands of blond hair. Then she smoothed her hands over her hips, settling the red silk against her body.
Would he be out there? Waiting to congratulate her? Or to question her sanity? She didn't care which, as long as he was near—close enough to touch.
Anxious now, she hurried from the office, barely remembering to turn the lock before pulling the door closed behind her. In the hall, the music played louder, the bass lower and sexier. She glanced toward the door that separated the hall from the lounge. Then she glanced back the other way. To the door in the brick wall at the end of the hall. The door that led nowhere—according to the club manager. Then why was it locked?
You don't belong here….
The voice had to be inside her head; how else could she have heard it over the volume of the music? She shivered again, but from cold, not fear, and considered unlocking the office to retrieve her sweater. But it would ruin the effect of the dress with its thin straps and low neckline.
She didn't regret her decision, at least regarding the sweater, as she stepped into the lounge.
It would have been out of place, would have made her look more out of place than she already felt among the bodies gyrating on the dance floor. She didn't have the tiny waist or sharp curves of the women; her curves were rounder, fuller. And she was so much older, not just in years but in experience, than those laughing, flirting girls.
They were twenty-one, at least, or they wouldn't have been allowed inside the club. But no lines creased or dark shadows touched their clear skin. Self-conscious, Paige lifted a hand to her cheek. From her sleepless nights, she had dark circles and lines of stress. Not just because of her impetuous purchase…
But because of him…
She glanced around the bar in the lowest level of the turn-of-the-century building. Like her office, the outer walls were exposed brick, and the interior ones were dark paneled and as highly polished as the hardwood floors. The lights were dim, candles on the intimate tables and booths, strobes flashing sexily across the dance floor. She recognized no one among the crowd. Had none of her friends shown up to wish her well? Of course, she hadn't given them much notice about the club. She hadn't told anyone about what had been going on in her life. Not even he knew everything.
He knew nothing—actually, not a thing about this woman…but that she was gorgeous. The muscles tightened in Ben's gut as he studied her moving around the club, as bright and fluid as a flame. He tracked her through the crowd. In her red dress, with her golden hair, she stood out among the others with their dark clothes and their darker agendas. She didn't belong… for so many reasons.
He ignored the voices calling out and the hands reaching for him and slipped through the crowd, following her. She glanced back, as if aware of his presence. From the first moment they'd met, they had always had an uncanny awareness of each other.
But she didn't stop walking. The sway of her hips, as she maneuvered through the crowd of club patrons, seduced him. He wanted to talk to her.
Who the hell was he kidding? He just wanted her.
Finally, he caught her—near the bar. She leaned over it, shouting out an order to the bartender. And he leaned against her, his hands sliding over the soft curve of her hips. Silk brushed across his palms, and his skin tingled from the heat of her flesh. He wanted the silk gone—the crowd gone. He wanted only her and him—and skin on skin.
Despite the heat of the crowded club, and his touch, Paige shivered. Her heart kicked against her ribs with excitement… and anticipation. "I'll be out of your way in just a minute," she murmured over her shoulder.
"Out of my way?" his deep voice rasped in her ear.
His warm breath raised goose bumps along her nape, and she nodded. "So you can get your free drink."
"Opening night special," she explained. "First drink is on the house."
"What if I don't want a drink?"
She tilted her head so that her gaze met his. His eyes, big and dark and fringed with thick lashes, studied her intently. His hair was dark, too, but for the strands of gray sprinkled through-out; it was also cut short, but not so short that she couldn't run her fingers through its softness.
"Is there something else you—" she swiped the tip of her tongue across her bottom lip "—want?"
His fingers flexed against her hips, digging gently into her flesh. "I want the special."
"I haven't told you the special," she reminded him with a teasing smile.
"I know what's special," he said, his gaze intent on her face.
Sadness tugged at her, pulling down the corners of her lips. If only she could believe him… but she knew better. If only she knew him better…
But they were strangers.
She whirled away from the bar and shoved past him. He caught her wrist, but she tugged free and slipped through the crowd. Voices murmured complaints as she bumped into hard bodies in her haste to escape him—and them— and that voice inside her head that pursued her all the way back to the office.
You don't belong here….
Paige's fingers trembled, and her keys jangled, as she pulled them from her small spangled clutch. She glanced to the end of the hall and that strange locked door.
Was the voice not inside her head? Was it coming from behind that door? The door that supposedly led nowhere? Now her legs trembled slightly as she passed the office and continued down the hall—toward that riveted steel door. When she neared it, still several feet away, cold air rushed around or through the steel and over her skin. She gasped and shuddered.
Then arms wrapped around her as a hard, warm body pressed against her back. And she screamed.
"No one can hear you," he said, his voice a deep rasp in her ear as his lips brushed the lobe. "Not back here, not over that music…"
Even though her heart raced, her lips curved into a smile. "Are you threatening me?"
He'd warned her before, but she hadn't heeded. Then. Now she was older and wiser. She knew this was the last man with whom she should get involved. Yet, instead of pulling away, she turned in his arms. He was taller than her, nearly a foot, with broad shoulders testing the seams of his black sweater. He wore all black: black shoes, black pants and that black sweater with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He could have been a cat burglar or a stalker.
She should have been afraid, and part of her was, her stomach quivering as she acknowledged the danger of what she was about to do, the risk she was taking. But she didn't care. She lifted her hands to his chest, settling her palms against the sculpted muscles. Heat and the rapid beat of his heart emanated through the thin cashmere.
"You're not going to listen to any warning," he said with a sigh of resignation, even as his dark eyes burned with desire. "No matter what I say…"
"You talk?" she teased, but her skepticism was real.
His mouth, wide and sensual, lifted in a slight grin. "What's the point when you won't listen?"
She lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug, which drew his attention to the skin bared by her low bodice. His eyes darkened even more as his pupils dilated. Desire thickened her throat as she murmured, "There is no point to talking…."
She didn't want to talk or listen or think. She wanted the rush of passion pounding through her veins to drown out the voice and her doubts— not just about buying the club but about him.
His hands loosened their grip on her waist, but before he could step back, she reached up and clutched his shoulders. Then she lifted her face to his. For his kiss.
Instead of lowering his head to hers, he shook it. Then he manacled her wrists and pulled her hands away from him. He glanced over her head, at that steel door, and a shudder rippled through his hard, muscled body. "Not here."
"You… you feel it, too?" she asked.
"I feel this between us—" he released a ragged sigh "—even though I don't want to…."
"I don't want to, either," she insisted, even as her skin heated with desire for him. She tugged her wrists free of his hands and fumbled inside her bag once again for her keys. After jabbing the key in the lock, she turned the knob and opened the door to her office.
Just as at the bar, strong hands slid over her hips. Then he pushed her through the doorway and closed and locked the door behind them. Locking them inside the small, windowless room. Alone.