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CLEO HOLLINGS, DEPUTY MAYOR of New York City, glanced at her watch and groaned. Six o'clock. She needed sleep, needed sleep desperately. The city's transit strike was wearing her down, her mind manically bouncing from stalled wage negotiations to her stalled love life, and she didn't need to be thinking about her stalled love life. She needed sleep. Four days without it would cause anyone to get a little loopy. Only a few minutes, what would it hurt?
Gently Cleo nudged aside the massive piles of paperwork, lowering her head, her cheek nuzzling against the desk. Slowly she was lost in the sleep she so desperately desired, lost in her dreams where the impossible became possible, and the men were the stuff of legends .
THE DESERT SUN BURNED high in the sky, but here inside the great marbled walls of City Hall, she was comfortably cool. Her loyal guards waved their palm fronds and took turns offering her sips of water from diamond-encrusted goblets and feeding her the sweetest grapes on the eastern coast. Alas, her respite was soon over, and it was time for the duties that were demanded of the Empress of the East River. Majestically the trumpets' fanfare echoed as Cleo walked to the throne. As always, the needs of the city beckoned, and it was time to attend her subjects.
Her guards were ten thousand strong. Their blue transit worker uniforms a testament to their loyalty to their ruler and their city. Reverently they parted, letting her pass, and her eyes noted a newcomer's arrival with interest.
This one was worthy.
She knew it by the challenge in his mocking eyes. The man believed he could tame hershe, who ruled all of New York.
There were few men in the world that could satisfy her; however, she greeted each day with fresh optimism. When your name was Cleopatra, expectations were understandably high.
Slowly he advanced toward her throne, stalking her as effortlessly as a lion seeks prey, his bare feet making no sound in the great room. His eyes were deep-brown pools that dared her to run, but surely he knew better. Cleo never ran. Gracefully, he knelt before her with athletic ease, but he didn't lower his head in homage as men always did. Rather, his gaze never left her face, and promised her the world.
Many men had already come and tried to woo her. Their pretty words were nothing but broken promises. Their token greeting cards were trite and flowery. They plied her with the nectar from fermented grapes, but she knew those games. This this arrogance, this power was new.
Cleo was intrigued.
She stood slowly, rising over him, letting him know his place in her world.
His coiled strength was unmistakable while he remained on bended knee. The hard muscles of his shoulders were tantalizingly displayed beneath the thin cloth of his toga. Strong, potent thighs supported his weight as he knelt, the tendons tight, drawing her eyes.
Her fingers stirred, eager to touch. Yet Cleo stayed immobile. This was her palace, her city, her country, and she ruled them with an iron hand that never showed weakness or mercy.
His hand reached out, as if daring to touch her, and one of her guards leaped forward, lethal spear at the ready. To touch her without invitation meant certain death, but she could not kill such a magnificent animal. Rashly, she dismissed the guards, ten thousand men who obeyed her every command. They turned to depart, their booted heels echoed in unison. As they were marching out, she admired this one's dark head, noting the silken hair and the tantalizing aroma of Issey Miyake cologne. It was her favorite, never failing to kindle her desires.
Even while supplicated before her, his arrogant mouth inched up at the corner.
The dastardly man knew.
Once the last of the guards disappeared, the hall stood empty and they were alone. His mouth inched up even higher, yet he did not rise. Boldly, his hand slipped through the slit in her gown, and moved to her thigh, not asking for permission or approval, taking. The slight touch burned through her veins, searing her blood. His fingers were hard, rough but well schooled in the art of pleasure, stroking her like a cat, arousing a purr that rumbled through her nerves like the Seventh Avenue subway at rush hour. Cleo was pleased, relaxed and most of all, happy.
Men brought her gifts. No man brought her happiness.
For that alone, she would let him live.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"A common peasant," he answered, continuing the blissful caress, exploring her strong thighs, sliding up her leg, taking an inch higher with each tantalizing stroke. "
Why are you here?" she asked, her voice catching slightly, yet enough for him to notice, damn his impudence. His eyes darkened, and she found his impudencetempting.
"I beg your indulgence, Excellency."
"You beg quite nicely," she offered, and he acknowledged her own impudence with a caress that was no longer flirting, but insolent indeed. Cleo swallowed, her knees weakening, and she hated that he knew her weakness, saw it, felt it inside her. Her body betrayed her, her legs parting, and as his fingers touched her, she could feel her womanly flesh swell, eager to feel his touch again. This time, the queen became his pawn.
Pawn? She would beg for no man, she was Cleopatra, ruler of all she surveyed. She would writhe for no man, she would moan for no man. Ruthlessly, she pushed his hand away. "We are done with playing. Come, before you grace me with your request.You will serve me in earnest. If you please me, perhaps you shall be rewarded."
He rose. He was a tall man, taller than she, stronger than she, but there was weakness in his eyes because of her. Cleo smiled. He thought he controlled her, he thought he ruled her. He was wrong.
No man messed with Cleo.
Insolently he pulled her into his lap, stealing her throne, setting her body on fire. "You are more than any man can resist."
"You dare," she cried, struggling to free herself, ready to call for the guards. Heedless of her protests, he turned her to straddle him and took her lips in a forceful kiss, taking what no man had taken before. Cleo fought even harder, but she could feel his hardened staff pressing against her womb and her flesh was weak, eager, waiting to be consumed.
"I dare," he whispered against her lips, impaling her on him with one fluid stroke.
He was so large, stallion large, so thick, stretching her body, almost painfully. Surely no man could be so well-endowed. The muscles in her legs were painfully tight, but she would not give him the satisfaction he craved, the satisfaction that she craved until he was the conquered. One inch farther, and she wanted to sigh. His lids shuttered lower, nearly masking his eyes, but not hiding the need.
He took her mouth, his tongue demanding entrance. Weakly she opened her lips to him, opened her body to him, feeling his potency inside her. She had had lovers before, but none such as this, none so virile.
As he moved within her, his hips slow and forceful, she forgot that he had usurped her throne, she forgot that he was a mere mortal in her realm. She forgot all but this blessed fullness inside her, the void that this man could fill.
There was a ruthlessness inside him, a hunger that equaled her own, and she sensed it, felt it in the steely control of his movements, his body, all that powerful strength. All at her command.
"What is your name?" she asked, because she had to know his name. He would be her favored one. She would appoint him to a position of power, give him a country, or a borough of his own to lord over.
"Mark," he told her.
"Mark," she whispered, and their bodies mated together, and with each powerful thrust, she knew she must keep him. He made her happy. "Mark," she whispered again. "Mark, Mark, Mark "
AFTER TALKING HIS WAY past two security guards, and bribing another three assistants, Sean O'Sullivan stood in the office of Cleo Hollings, trying to figure out what to do now. This was the one scenario he hadn't prepared for. The Deputy Mayor of New York City was asleep at her desk and calling for some guy named Mark.
The Deputy Mayor was hot. Even asleep with a ball-point pen sticking to her cheek, she was still smoking. Sean checked the clock on her desk, which read almost eight o'clock. Her office would be filling up soon, and with the transit strike in progress, all hands would be needed. This was his one shot, and it wouldn't be smart to stand here waiting to see how far this dream was going to take her. Not that he wasn't exceptionally interested.
With a regretful sigh, Sean put a hand on her shoulder and shook gently, the long, red fall of her hair spilling over his fingers. Tempting. Very, very tempting.
Her head snapped up, dark lashes opening, and she stared at Sean with amber eyes that were sleep fogged, and passion fogged still. That must have been some dream. He wanted to be in that dream.
She blinked. "Mark?"
And stone-cold reality. Sean shook his head. "No, not Mark. Sean O'Sullivan."
He smiled at her, and the passion faded from her expression, the sleep faded, and the amber eyes narrowed dangerously. "Why are you in my office? Are you here about the strike?"
This was the Deputy Mayor of administration that he had heard about. Cleo Hollings, the Wicked Witch of Murray Street. She oversaw the fire department, the police department, the transit workers that were currently giving the city fits, the speechwriters, the sanitation department and the courts. She ruled it all with an iron hand.
Cleo wasn't the best choice for what Sean needed, but after he'd seen her picture, well, there wasn't much doubt who'd he go to after that. She had a body that men died for and the mouth that cleaved them in two. She was a challenge and Sean lived for challenges. The more impossible, the happier he was.
"I need to talk to you," he said.
"Excuse me? There are eight million commuters trying to get to work, and there's no buses, no subways. This is day four of the strike. Negotiations are restarting in" she looked at the clock "oh, noan hour in midtown. I have to go." She made an attempt to leave, but Sean put a hand on her arm. Underneath the wool blazer, he felt the steel. A face like a china doll, a body like no, Sean. Not now.
"Wait," he managed to say. "Please. I won't be long. Two minutes tops."
She stood frozen under his hand, her eyes staring at where he touched her. "You dare," she whispered.
Okay, that was just weird, but Sean was good at thinking on his feet. "Please. I'm begging here. You're pretty much my last chance."
Finally she shook her head, probably working off the last of sleep, the last of her dream. He noted the circles under her eyes. "How much sleep have you had?"
"Not enough. Tell me what you need."
"It's about a bar," he replied, regretfully removing his hand.
"A bar?You must be kidding. Tell me you're kidding." All that angry fire, all that bottled passion. He could imagine what she was like in bed, a flash of red hair, her body coiled around his, arched and ready, blazing hot . For a long, healthy moment, Sean got caught up in the idea.
Jeez, he needed to stop. Mentally he yanked his libido back on the leash. Sean put on his lawyer face. Much better. Almost enough to forget "Someone in the mayor's office is messing with my brother's bar. I need to stop it." It was true. For the past two years, Gabe's bar had been cited for health violations, electrical problems, street problems and pretty much anything that a creative person could imagine. All citations without cause. Sean had fought the battles he could, but this last form letter was the bureaucratic breach heard round the world.
Sean was declaring war on City Hall.
Nearby, he could hear the rustling sounds of the office waking up. He needed to work fast. The clock was ticking. Literally. She rubbed at her neck, fingers diving into kinked muscle. Sleeping at a desk was never a good idea. He'd done it. He'd regretted it.
"You want me to fix that for you?" he asked, contemplating the smooth skin she was kneading, rashly ignoring the ticking clock. Mainly he wanted to touch her again. Her skin was fair, porcelain white, making a man imagine her without the exquisitely fitted suit.
"What?" she asked, returning to look at him with steamy, caramel eyes that still weren't quite awake. Lust spiked straight to his cock. Sean didn't know Mark, didn't care, but right now, he hated the man. The photo in the newspaper had missed all her good parts, and Cleo Hollings had good parts in spades. The lethal strength inside her. All that emotion simmering, pressure building, waiting for the right spark to explode.
Wisely he kept that thought from his face. She knew her own appeal. Men fell all over her and she didn't tolerate it. He'd heard the stories. Some approaching mythic proportions. "Your neck. I can rub the kink out if you want." He glanced at the clock, heard voices outside. Ignored them.
"Don't even think of touching me. What's the name of the bar?"
"Prime. There's an outline of the whole mess on your desk. It's short. I know you're busy. I need help."
"I'll check into it," she promised, then moved to leave.
Sean grabbed her arm again. Not exactly smart, but he liked feeling the current shoot through him. As a kid, he had stuck his finger in a light socket and lived to tell about it. There were certain parallels. "Why don't you let me take you out for dinner?" he asked.
With efficiency she shrugged into her coat, the black leather skimming her body, her breasts, her hips, riding down to toned thighs. "You're coming on to me, aren't you? It's not even eight o'clock, and we're running through every move in the playbook."
Well, duh. Did he look stupid? "Absolutely, I'm coming on to you. Men are very visual, simplistic creatures. Give us something to look at, and we're happy. I'd be some eunuch-man if I didn't come on to you, and I'm not a eunuch."
"No. I didn't think you were," Cleo murmured. "I'm not having dinner with you. Too busy."
It'd take more than a transit strike to keep Sean from what he wanted. "You don't eat?" he persisted.
"We've ordered in for the past four days. Deli food."
"You're disappointing me," he said, simply content to stare at her. He'd recite the entire New York State case law if he could stay here, staring, breathing. She was different, so different from anyone else. The tension crackled through her, tempting him all over again.
"Life's full of disappointments. I bet you'll survive," she told him, and yeah, he would, but if she thought he was giving up, uh, that was a big no. "Speaking of work. Need to get back to it. I'm sure you'll understand. Eight million commuters and all that "
"I'll check in with you in a couple of days"
She tightened her jaw, as if ready to correct him. Sean jumped in before she could.
"of course, that's assuming you can resolve the strike in a couple of days."
It was an inflammatory comment, designed for one purpose only. To get her as worked up as he was, to see her eyes shoot flames. Not pretty, but Sean was driven by simple needs.
She quirked one brow, high and full of contempt. "Are you doubting my ability to whip ten thousand unionized transit workers into line?"
Entranced, Sean stared at her. "There was never one second of doubt in my brain that you could whip a whole army of men into line. Unionized transit workers or not."
She nearly smiled. He saw it. "Don't make me like you. I don't like people. Especially non-eunuch-men who need things from me."
He shrugged helplessly. "I have to. It's who I am." Cleo headed for the door and he followed, down the stairs, out the building. The entire way he fought the urge to touch her. He wanted to feel that surge again. At the front gate, she paused where her driver was waiting.
"Hey," Sean called out and she turned.
She tensed, those magnificent amber eyes lasering in on him. "I don't know a Mark. I don't want to know a Mark. There are no Marks. None. No. Marks. Ever."
Sean watched her leave, and then kicked up the leaves that were littered along the pavement. He didn't care who Mark was. He'd made up his mind.
Sean was going to have her.
All he had to do was figure out how.