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No One But You
By MAUREEN SMITH
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Baltimore, Maryland Friday, October 3 Day 1
Claire Thorndike smoothed on a coat of red lipstick, pressed her lips together to evenly distribute the color, then leaned back to inspect her image in the vanity mirror. The wide green eyes that stared back at her were dramatically accentuated by the smoky eye shadow and mascara she'd applied minutes before. Her long auburn hair-the envy of those jealous bitches at her high school-cascaded to her pale bare shoulders in lustrous, rippling waves. But as gorgeous as her hair and makeup were, the pièce de résistance was the sheer white negligee that clung to her lithe, curvaceous body. She looked like a virgin bride on her wedding night. Wholesome and demure, yet irresistibly seductive-which was the effect she'd been going for.
James was going to love it.
As she placed a dab of Clive Christian's No 1 perfume behind her ears, on her wrists, and between her perfectly perky breasts-courtesy of a $15,000 boob job last year-Claire could feel her pulse racing in anticipation of the night to come.
After four weeks of corresponding via MyDomain and secretly e-mailing each other, Claire was finally going to meet her cyberlover, the smart, funny, gorgeous man who'd swept her off her feet in a way no lamebrain jock at school had ever come close to accomplishing.
But Claire was no idiot.
She'd watched enough Dateline specials to know the dangers involved in hooking up with strange men over the Internet. She'd heard horror stories of naive young girls who wound up getting raped or killed by the sadistic pervs they'd met in some chat room, and Claire had always shaken her head in disbelief at the appalling stupidity demonstrated by the victims.
Youth is never an excuse for stupidity, as her AP English teacher was fond of saying.
Before agreeing to meet James that evening, Claire had taken the necessary precautions by enlisting the services of a discreet private investigator, who'd run a complete background check on James-without his knowledge, of course. The P.I. hadn't come cheap, but the peace of mind he'd given Claire was worth every red cent she'd paid him out of her allowance.
What was money to her anyway? Her father was a multimillionaire.
At the thought of Spencer Thorndike, Claire's lips curved in a slow, satisfied smile. Her father would never approve of her online romance. Although James was intelligent, handsome, and successful, he was also older than Claire. Much older.
And he was black.
Which made him even more perfect.
Claire could think of no better way to get back at her mean, domineering father than by falling in love with a man who was nothing like him. Spencer Thorndike would have a stroke if he knew that while he and his bimbo of a trophy wife were enjoying their annual ski trip to Vail, his seventeen-year-old daughter was rolling between his imported silk sheets with a tall, dark, and handsome stranger.
Oh yeah. Her father would really have a-
Claire started at the sudden loud noise. Her gaze flew across her large bedroom to the window, where a strong gust of wind had slammed against the windowpane, rattling it. The bony, brittle branches of a giant oak tree, gnarled like an old woman's fingers, scraped against the glass. Night had fallen, leaving the forested hills and grounds shrouded in darkness.
With a slight frown, Claire rose from the vanity chair and crossed to the window. As she started to draw the heavy curtains closed, she stopped short. And stared into the night.
She'd caught a glimpse of something in the darkness.
Or her own pale reflection?
Claire stepped away from the window, the fine hairs lifting on the back of her neck.
Get a grip, she silently commanded herself. There's no one out there. You're just paranoid because you know you'll be in deep shit if Dad ever finds out you had a strange man in the house.
But he won't find out, she reminded herself. He and your wicked stepmother are thousands of miles away at a private ski resort. They're probably not even thinking about you. So chill out!
Taking a slow, deep breath, Claire stepped to the window again and peered through the darkness. The night was suddenly still, the rush of wind having died down. There was no one out there. No boogeyman lurking in the shadows. No Peeping Tom spying on her from behind a pair of binoculars.
But as Claire quickly closed the curtains, she found herself regretting, not for the first time, the remote location of her home, a Tudor mansion built of stone and glass and perched high on a hill that overlooked the manicured suburbs of Mount Washington in northwestern Baltimore City. It wasn't that she minded living on sixty acres of land that boasted a natural lake, beautifully tended gardens, an equestrian complex, and plenty of scenic riding trails. The sprawling estate, which had been featured in many magazines and had hosted a number of visiting dignitaries and Hollywood A-listers, offered far better accommodations than the cramped two-bedroom apartment in northeast D.C. she'd briefly shared with her mother, who'd not only lost custody of Claire after her bitter divorce from Spencer Thorndike but had been gullible enough to sign a prenup when they'd first gotten married twenty years ago.
No, Claire wouldn't have given up the mansion for anything. But she sometimes wished she lived closer to her friends from school. Hell, on lonely nights like these, she wished she lived closer to anyone.
Stop it, she told herself. You're being ridiculous.
Not having any neighbors actually worked to her advantage. She'd never have gotten away with inviting James over if she'd had to worry about nosy neighbors telling her father about her late-night visitor. That was why she'd given the housekeeper, the butler, the cook, and the chauffeur the night off. Insurance. That was also why she'd disabled her father's high-tech security system, which often made her feel like she was living in some damn futuristic prison. Between the surveillance camera at the front gate, the motion sensors on the property, and the security alarm inside the house, Claire felt like she couldn't take two steps without being tracked. If she ever found out that her father had installed hidden video cameras in the house, she'd kill him, so help her God.
Claire glanced at the clock on her antique nightstand. 8:30 P.M. James was supposed to arrive at nine, which gave her a little more time to finish getting ready. Downstairs in the living room, she had a bottle of Bordeaux on ice next to a cozy fire. In the CD player, the hauntingly seductive wail of John Coltrane's sax-James's favorite-was waiting to be enjoyed.
It was going to be a perfect night, Claire thought dreamily. One she would never forget.
As she moved from the window, she heard it. The soft creak of a floorboard.
Claire froze. Fear pulsed through her blood.
Was someone else in the house?
Calm down. It's just your imagination. You live in a house that was built in 1929. Old houses make noise. You know that.
But she suddenly felt a draft across her skin, as if there were someone in the room with her.
Claire remained perfectly still, scarcely breathing as she strained to listen for approaching footsteps. But all she heard was the gentle whisper of the wind outside, the soft scrape of tree limbs against her window. Nothing sinister or out of place.
Maybe she should call James to see if he was on his way. She'd feel a lot safer once he arrived.
But as she started toward the dresser, where she'd left her cell phone earlier, a dark, hulking figure suddenly appeared in the open doorway.
Dressed entirely in black, his head covered by a ski mask, the intruder slowly advanced on her. Deadly silent and menacing.
Terror gripped Claire. "Who are you?" she cried. "What do you want?"
But he remained silent, deliberately stalking her as she backed toward the window. Oh God, oh God, I don't want to die. Please help me!
Her frantic gaze swept around the room, searching for something she could use as a weapon. Spying a wooden baseball bat mounted on one wall-autographed by her longtime crush Derek Jeter-she lunged for it.
But it was too late.
In no time at all the intruder was upon her, a strong, heavy male whose weight forced her to the hardwood floor. She landed with a painful thud, the long hem of her negligee tangling with her bare legs. She screamed and flailed against him as he straddled her.
Oh God, she thought in horror. He's going to rape me before he kills me!
Something hard and cold was pressed against her neck, and then a jolt ripped through her body. Thousands of volts of electricity burned through her veins.
Claire let out a whimper before surrendering to unconsciousness.
Chapter Two "Hey, beautiful, can I holler at you for a minute?"
With a cursory glance, Althea Pritchard sized up the stranger who'd approached her as she emerged from the restroom. Five foot six. Late twenties. Wearing a shiny silk shirt opened to the middle of his hairy chest. Reeking of cheap cologne.
Not her type. Definitely.
"Tell you what," Althea said over the bass-heavy hip-hop music blaring through the crowded Baltimore nightclub. "Let me have a few drinks first, then maybe we can talk."
He opened and closed his mouth, looking as if he were trying to determine whether he'd been rejected.
Before he could decide, Althea made her escape, weaving her way through a throng of sweaty, gyrating bodies to reach a small table in the corner occupied by two attractive black women. They were laughing at her as she approached.
"You poor baby," said Keren Childers as Althea slid into the empty chair beside her.
"He's been watching you ever since we arrived," Kimberly Rhodes added, her dark, expressive eyes twinkling with mirth. "We watched him get up and follow you when you went to the restroom."
Althea scowled at her two longtime friends. "You could have warned me I was being stalked."
Keren laughed. "We tried to, but you left your cell phone in your purse at the table, remember?" Pointedly she passed Althea the Louis Vuitton handbag she'd been guarding in her absence.
Kimberly said, "Besides, we knew you could take care of yourself if that fool tried something crazy, like actually following you into the bathroom." She shook her head, grinning. "I'd have given anything to see the terrified look in his eyes when you shoved your Glock in his face."
Althea chuckled, lifting her untouched strawberry margarita to her mouth. "It wouldn't have come to that."
Kimberly looked disappointed. "Too bad. What good is being an FBI agent if you can't arrest every loser who hits on you?"
Althea sputtered on her drink, laughing. "What kind of question is that? I didn't become an FBI agent so I could go around threatening and arresting harmless people!"
A speculative gleam filled Kimberly's dark eyes. "Now that you mention it, why did you become an FBI agent? I mean, you could have been a-Ouch!" She shot an accusing glare across the table at Keren. "Why'd you kick me?"
Keren gave her a smile etched in steel. "This is Althea's first night back in town, remember? We're here to celebrate and have a good time, not rehash the past."
Those two words descended upon the small table like an ominous gray cloud, thick and heavy with the promise of rain. Althea knew all too well about the past. She'd spent the last eight years, and thousands of dollars in therapy, trying like hell to bury the past. But every so often it resurfaced, the way an empty conch shell washed ashore after a storm.
She had returned home, to the place where her life had changed forever, hoping to put the painful memories behind her once and for all. Joining her friends for a carefree night on the town was just what the doctor ordered-literally. A month before leaving Seattle, Althea had kept her final appointment with her therapist, Zachary Parminter, who she'd been seeing for three years. During that last session, she'd promised Dr. Parminter that she would learn to find a healthy balance between her personal life and her demanding career. And she intended to keep that promise.
On Monday morning, she would report to her new assignment at the FBI field office in Baltimore and immerse herself in the business of hunting criminals.
But tonight she wouldn't think about work. Tonight she would let her hair down and cast aside all her inhibitions. She'd drink margaritas, laugh like she had not a care in the world, and dance the night away.
"Speaking of arresting people," said Kimberly, her gaze riveted on the entrance to the club, "would you happen to have an extra pair of handcuffs on you, Althea?"
Althea frowned over the salted rim of her cocktail glass. "Why?"
"'Cause I want to make an arrest. That brotha who just walked through the door is so damn fine it should be against the law!"
Laughing, Althea and Keren followed the direction of their friend's gaze. For once, Kimberly had not exaggerated. The man who stood in the entryway scanning the crowded nightclub was tall, well over six feet. He was darkly handsome in a well-cut blazer, pleated charcoal trousers, and a white shirt open to the strong column of his throat. He had broad shoulders and a wide chest that tapered down to a trim, athletic waist and long legs. Midnight black hair was cropped close to his scalp. His skin was rich mahogany, stretched taut over broad cheekbones, a strong masculine nose, and a rugged jaw. His eyebrows were thick, black slashes, and his mouth was firm and sensual.
For some reason he struck Althea as vaguely familiar, though she knew she'd never met him before. No way would she have forgotten someone like him.
As his dark, piercing eyes roamed around the room, Althea was surprised to find herself willing him to glance her way.
And then, suddenly, he did.
The moment their eyes met, Althea felt like the air had been knocked from her lungs. An unexpected heat curled through her blood. Despite the people who passed between them, intermittently blocking their line of sight, their gazes remained locked for several charged seconds.
A burst of rowdy male voices, rising above the music from a table across the room, drew the man's attention. With one last lingering look at Althea, he moved off to join his party.
"Lord have mercy," Kimberly breathed, making an exaggerated show of fanning herself as she craned her neck to stare after him. "Lord have mercy."
Keren laughed. "You can say that again."
Althea was silent, watching as the sexy stranger threaded his way through the crowd, oblivious to the admiring looks of women he passed. He stopped at a table occupied by a large group of men, half of whom, judging by their flushed faces and raucous laughter, were already drunk or well on their way there. At the newcomer's arrival, the entire group erupted into a loud chorus of "Happy Birthday."
The stranger laughed, a pair of deep dimples flashing in his lean cheeks. There was nothing cherubic or adorable about those dimples. They were masculine and irresistibly wicked, the kind that made a woman want to cross her legs.
Which Althea did. Tightly.
As his friends ended their off-key birthday tribute, the man, still grinning, claimed an empty chair at the head of the table. The waitress quickly materialized with another round of drinks. An attractive young brunette with ample breasts spilling over the neckline of her too-small halter, she made a point of serving the birthday boy first, pouring his beer into a tall glass, then leaning over him with an arm draped across his chair for the sole purpose of treating him to an eyeful of cleavage-much to the delight of his comrades, who whooped and roared with approval.
With a pang of irritation, Althea watched as the sexy stranger whispered something into the waitress's ear that made her throw back her head and laugh with genuine pleasure. She gave him a sultry smile and a wink before leaving the table, the seductive sway of her hips drawing the lustful eye of every male within a hundred feet.
"Men," Keren pronounced in disgust, shaking her head. She glared after the departing waitress. "I bet those aren't even real!"
Kimberly laughed. "Now, now. Don't be jealous," she teased, gently patting her friend's hand. "You're a successful CPA. I'm sure you can afford your own breast implants. Hell, it might even help you get that promotion you've been slaving for."
Excerpted from No One But You by MAUREEN SMITH Copyright © 2008 by Maureen Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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