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Talen Jacek was tall, dark and delicious, with a face that haunted Keri Maddox's dreams ... and a body that inspired her fantasies.
He stood in her kitchen, glaring at her Mr. Coffee. The only barrier between her feasting eyes and his scrumptious body was a snowy cotton towel slung low on his hips. Outside of a large jagged scar that cut diagonally across his chest, he was a study in male perfection. Somehow, that one imperfection made him that much more stunning. It made him look dangerous.
Tiny droplets of water glistened on his wide, suntanned shoulders and smooth-skinned chest, and his dark, wavy hair was a riot of damp curls. Her fingers just itched to slide through their tangled, sexy thickness, to trace the intricate lines of the amazing black and grey tattoo of a bird, spread wings stretched from one side of his upper back to the other.
It was a sight straight out of last night's fantasy.
The only problem was, Talen was in the wrong apartment.
Keri knew for a fact that she'd locked her door this morning when she'd left for work, and Talen didn't have a key. Talen didn't have a key because they weren't dating. They weren't roommates. They weren't even friends. Heck, they'd exchanged nothing but polite small talk since Talen had moved into the building. Granted, they'd exchanged more than their share of heated looks.
Sadly, he'd never made his move.
"Uh, hello?" Unable to stop from openly ogling her almost-naked neighbor, Keri dropped her purse on the counter. "What are you doing in my apartment, besides the obvious--abusing my coffeemaker?"
Talen glanced up, his expression shifted from nondomestic male confusion tobeaming heartbreaker on-the-prowl. Keri caught the edge of the counter to steady herself.
"Hi. Sorry. I had a little accident." He motioned to the stove, which was coated with some sort of red substance--funny, she hadn't noticed that disaster before now. "I was trying to make spaghetti but the sauce sort of ... burped all over me. So I jumped in the shower. I'm afraid I'm not exactly the King of Domesticity."
What gave Talen the idea that she'd expected him to be anything but the silent and mysterious neighbor with the adorable dimples?
"Ooookay." She went to the coffeemaker and started it. Oddly, she felt like she might need some hefty doses of caffeine tonight. She normally cut off all caffeine after six. Her body tingled all over when she shuffled past the mostly unclothed Talen, heading to the sink to arm herself with a wet sponge and some spray cleaner for the stove. She dumped the pot of soggy noodles she found in the sink before heading back to the stove. Once she checked the burners, making sure they were cool, she doused the entire stovetop in cleaner. "I'm afraid you've lost me. So, how about you start from the very beginning, like when you decided you needed to break into my apartment--"
"Oh, I didn't break in. The other guy did."
Huh? "What other guy? Where?" Suddenly realizing there might be a reason to be concerned about Talen's unexpected visit, she glanced around her kitchen.
She hadn't noticed anything odd when she'd first entered her apartment. Her door had been locked. The door itself had shown no obvious signs of a break-in, nothing to catch her attention. Her living room had been in its usual tidy state. The only thing out of the ordinary had been Talen.
Then again, maybe she'd been too distracted by his yummy self to notice anything else. Heck, she'd totally missed the mess on the stove until he'd pointed it out.
"You're telling me someone broke in? Like a burglar?" She swung around and checked the sliding door to her tiny balcony, wondering if the suspected burglar had come in that way. Unlikely as that was, since she lived on the second floor, she supposed it was possible.
"I'm guessing it was a burglar, although I'm not absolutely sure..."
The balcony door was shut, the curtains undisturbed. Pivoting again, she glanced at Talen. "Someone was really in my apartment? How do you know?"
"Because ... I heard something, a noise. Thud. No, a thump. And when I came to check, thinking you might've fallen, the door was hanging wide open."
"That's strange. A loud noise? Nothing seems to be knocked down. I wonder why anyone would break in..." Forgetting for a moment about her nearly naked guest, she hurried toward her bedroom, the room that was closest to Talen's apartment.
"I didn't see any sign of damage to the door or forced entry. But I did find something. Does this look familiar?" Behind her, Talen extended his arm, unfurling his fingers.
A gold cufflink.
A very unique and memorable cufflink.
Oh no. "Where?" The air left her lungs in a huff, and she staggered backward on shaky legs. Her hands flew to her face as she struggled to gulp in some much-needed air. Her stomach twisted in her belly. No, no, no!
"Keri?" Talen caught her upper arms and jerked her against him, wrapping her in a protective embrace. "What's wrong?"
Immediately, the awful nausea in her belly eased.
Mark Hayward, Esq. had taken their so-called breakup pretty badly, and after he'd showed up one night drunk and belligerent, she'd even filed for a personal protection order against him. Her application had been dismissed by the judge, but her threat to try again seemed to work when he showed up drunk a few nights later. He'd left her alone for a couple months. Until now.
Obviously, the spoiled-rich-kid-turned-attorney-slash-party-boy decided she wouldn't go through with the PPO, or maybe he knew it would be denied.
Darn it, she'd hoped he'd finally moved on, found someone else to obsess over. Stalk. He was a freaking lawyer. Who would've thought a guy with an impeccable reputation, a thriving law practice and more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes would be such a nutcase when it came to women?
What made things more confusing was the fact that they'd never officially been a couple. They'd only dated casually for a few weeks. And that was months ago.
"I'm okay. Honest ... I think." She wriggled free from Talen's protective hold and headed toward her door. "That cufflink you found belongs to a guy I dated a while back. How'd he get in? Did you see him?"
"I think I missed him by seconds. The elevator door shut just as I came around the corner. I got only a glimpse of a guy with dark hair, shorter than me. Dark complexion."
"Mmmm, if you're not dating him anymore, you might want to get your key back."
"Key? I don't know how he'd get my key. I never gave him one. We were never that serious. And I haven't talked to him in months. Ohmygosh, I need to get the locks changed." She twisted the deadbolt and walked in a circle, not sure what to do first.
Talen stood silent, tracking her movement back and forth with his eyes. "I don't think you should stay here tonight."
"Great, now what?" She couldn't think, couldn't prioritize. What should she do first, call the apartment's office to request a new lock or go pack some stuff? Where would she stay? The thought of camping in some stupid hotel made her insides twist into knots.
This was insane--having to run from her home, to leave everything she owned and go into hiding because of one insane man who didn't know how to deal with rejection.
Would he just get over it already? Sheesh, she'd hate to see how he reacted when an honest-to-god girlfriend dumped him.
A part of her bristled at the notion that she'd have to let him basically bully her out of her own home, even temporarily. But the other part of her--the one that wasn't sure how demented he was--reminded her that being safe always trumped making a point. She'd watched enough of those true crime shows on television to know that a guy like this could be capable of some really horrific things.
Multitasking, she went for the cordless phone, punching the numbers for the apartment complex's office while hurrying around her bedroom. As she waited for someone to answer, she started tossing clothes into an overnight bag then rushed to the bathroom to gather some essentials.
After about twenty rings, she glanced at the clock.
Just freaking great. It was after six. The office was closed until tomorrow.
Talen was still standing in the kitchen, in her bath towel, when she returned from the bedroom. He poured her a cup of freshly brewed coffee and handed it to her. "Want to tell me what's going on? Maybe I can help somehow."
"Oh, I don't want to drag you into my troubles. Like I said, the cufflink belongs to a guy I ... dated casually--emphasis on casually--for a short time. Short, as in a couple of weeks. Clearly, he has issues with rejection. Unfortunately, he's not only the sole son of our governor but also a well-known lawyer with a brilliant future in politics ahead of him. No one wants to believe me when I say he's stalking me. Not even the police." She plucked the piece of jewelry from where Talen had left it on her kitchen counter and stuffed it into her pocket.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"To the police station. Again. And then ... I don't know." She sagged against a bar stool, dropping the overnight bag on the floor at her feet. "I guess I'll stay in a hotel until I can get the locks changed. This sucks. Why's he doing this? There's nothing here he could want. And it's not like what we had was all that great." Her cheeks warmed as Talen's brows knitted in surprise. "What I mean is, there are plenty of other women out there who don't mind a guy who's a bit on the controlling side. He's rich. Good looking. Me, I'd rather not deal with it, regardless of the size of his investment portfolio."
Talen nodded. "Got it." He kicked a foot over the other and leaned into the counter. "I have an idea. Just hear me out. You should stay with me instead of going to a hotel. That way you could come to your place and get what you need when you want, and you won't be alone--which is probably not safe, no matter where you stay. Plus, we can keep an eye on the place, maybe catch him in the act, so he'll be arrested or at least you'll be able to get that PPO."
That sounded like a good plan. A brilliant one, actually. The fact that she'd be staying with Talen, who had at least thirty pounds on her psycho-stalking lawyer, as well as a good four inches, made the idea all the more tempting. And even better, it would give her a chance to get to know this charming man with the dimples, enormous tattoo that spanned his back from shoulder to ass, and to-die-for body. Mmmm, he was something to look at.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"I mean, this is asking a lot. What if stalker-lawyer-guy finds out I'm staying with you? He could come down and start giving you trouble too."
"Believe me, I know how to deal with guys like him. I can handle it."
She wanted to believe him, boy did she ever. "Can I ask, since we've hardly spoken before today, are you married? I'm not going to get in the way, am I?"
He shook his head. "Nope. Not married..."
He crossed his thick arms over his chest and leaned a hip against the counter. "And you won't be in my way. So, do you have everything you need?"
She took a second to glance around, but her mind wasn't focused. "Can I ask, what do you do? I'm not going to get you into trouble or anything, am I?"
"Not at all. I'm in the ... security field. Personal security."
"You mean, like a bodyguard?" This was too much of a coincidence to believe. Her nerves started twitching.
"Yeah, like a bodyguard. I protect people, individuals. And at the moment I'm between jobs..."
The phone started ringing, yanking her attention to the handset sitting on the counter. She lifted it, glancing at the caller-ID display.
Mark's number. Ack!
Her heart literally stopped beating for a second.
Now what? Stay with the bodyguard, who just happened to be gorgeous, single and between jobs when she needed his services? Or take her chances on her own?
Her eyes jerked back to Talen.
Merely standing there, he gave off this dangerous, predatory vibe while still, somehow, making her feel safe and protected.
Her body proclaimed its choice.
The phone rang again, and a shiver of anticipation skittered up her spine. She snatched up the phone, hoping Mark would explain everything and then she wouldn't have to go anywhere.
But there was a click and the call ended.
A second later, the phone rang again, and hopeful the first call had been cut short because of a bad connection, she answered, "Hello? Mark?"
This time, he said nothing. Only breathed.
Creepy! She hung up.
The phone rang again, and she threw her hands into the air. How could she think logically with so much going on? "Fine. I'll stay with you. But only on one condition--I pay the same price for your services as every other client would."
"I'm good with that if you are." He offered his hand.
She took it, and yet another zing of energy zapped up her arm. Her cheeks heated and she dropped her gaze to his navel. It had to be one of the sexiest belly buttons she'd ever seen. And of course it was situated dead center on one of the sexiest bellies she'd ever seen too. He had to have noticed she was gawking by now. Searching for safer territory, she snapped her head to the side and stared out the window instead. "Ooookay then."
A quick shake of his hand, and the deal was sealed.
A few bits of her anatomy did a happy dance.
"So, have you worked for anyone famous?" It had taken a few hours, and a fruitless trip to the police station--they still didn't believe her!--before Keri was finally starting to feel a smidge more comfortable with her new fulltime bodyguard. The fact that Talen was finally semiclothed helped a bit.
Wearing a pair of shorts and a snug black tank shirt that showed off his chest and shoulders to perfection, he lay sprawled on his very masculine black leather couch, the remote control in one fist, a can of cola in the other. Your typical guy. King of his castle.
She sat on the matching loveseat, her legs curled beneath her, a pillow propping her back and a coverlet thrown over her legs. Her head was mere inches from his, thanks to the relative position of the couch to the love seat. Definitely close enough to get a good look at that stunning face of his.
Cozy, her stomach full of Italian takeout and a couple of glasses of white wine, she was feeling better about things by the minute. Who knew? Maybe Mark had done her a favor tonight by pulling the stalker act. If he hadn't, Talen might have never gotten over his shyness or whatever it was that had kept him from saying more than "hey" when they passed in the hallway.
He took a swig from his can then set it on the coffee table with a clunk. "Yeah, you could call a few of them famous, I guess."
"Cool." She leaned closer. "Like who?"
His eyes twinkled as he shook his head, his lips quirking into a smile that hinted at lots of secrets. "Can't tell you. It's in my contract."
"Even if you're not working for them anymore?"
"Yep." In the next several heartbeats of silence that followed, his gaze wandered over her face, making her a little squirmy, but in a good way.
She wondered if there was anything in the contract that forbade him from kissing her. He licked his lips, and her gaze lingered on the slick path his tongue had left behind.
"Have you been anywhere interesting?" she heard herself ask. How the heck had she managed to string together so many words in a row?
"Yes, I have. I've traveled all over Europe, Asia, Africa..."
Was it her, or was the heat cranked up to ninety? She pushed the coverlet off her lap and smoothed her hair into a ponytail, lifting it off her shoulders.
Twisting to face her, Talen tilted his head and reached, gathering the column of hair in his hands, and she knew, without a doubt, that he was going to kiss her.
Any second now.
He inched closer and she held her breath.
Her eyelids shuttered closed, and a comforting blackness cut off her sight, allowing her other senses to amplify. She could hear the soft, steady whoosh of his breathing. And the nerves in her neck and shoulders jangled from the fleeting touch of his knuckles as they scraped across her nape.
"You're beautiful." He was so close that his words fell like puffs of sweet-scented air on her mouth. "Do you know how many times I've wanted to do this...?"
"Do what?" she whispered, fully intending the words to be an invitation. Hot and tight, her body reacted to the sensations raining upon it like a spring shower--the erotic hunger she heard in his voice, the scent of his skin, the almost cruelly soft way he held her hair. She licked her lips, tasting the lingering flavor of wine. His mouth gently caressed hers, and she sagged against the loveseat's arm, drowning in sensual heat.
His fingers splayed, supporting the back of her head. He traced the seam of her mouth with his tongue, not exactly begging entrance but more or less making his intentions clear.
She eagerly opened, welcoming the sweet invasion. His tongue swept into her mouth, gliding over hers, a show of raw male possession. The fingers holding her head gently kneaded her scalp as his tongue and lips worked magic.
A kiss had never been so devastating. Her mind--usually delighted to scream all kinds of shoulds and shouldn'ts--went totally silent.
Wherever this was going, she wasn't about to fight it.
He broke the kiss for an agonizing second or two. "Damn, you taste good." He stood, walked around the end of the couch and paced back and forth once, twice, a third time. His head down, he shoved his fingers through his hair. "Dammit."
"Is something wrong?"
His eyes found hers. "Yes. No." He charged toward her, caging her shoulders between his outstretched arms. "You taste so sweet, like honey. I want more."
A soft moan slipped between her lips, and a tremor raced up her spine. "Yes, more," she pleaded, relinquishing to the desire swirling through her. "Kiss me again." Oh, how beautiful he made her feel as he looked down upon her with flames flickering in his dark eyes. Pretty but also vulnerable and overpowered. It was a thrilling combination.
He climbed overtop of her, wedging one knee between her hip and the back of the loveseat and balancing the other one on the edge of the cushion. Bending his arms, he levered lower, until the heat radiating from his bulk warmed her simmering body and his mouth hovered over hers again. She closed her eyes and let her entire being focus on the place where his mouth met hers, and their tongues mated.
With every stab and stroke, the warmth in her body edged up another degree and the tension coiling deep in her belly knotted tighter. And yet she couldn't stop, couldn't stand the thought of tearing her mouth from his, even if it meant she'd burn up from fever or die from heart failure.
Never had she been kissed by a man like this, so incredibly strong and striking.
She reached up and looped her arms around his neck, pulling him down, anxious to feel his hard body pressed firmly against hers, his hips wedged between her spread thighs.
A pounding ache was gathering there, in her center, and she rocked her hips, desperate to grind it away, hoping he wouldn't deny her the pleasure his kisses were promising.
Another sensual brush of his mouth across hers and then he straightened up, pulling her with him until she was sitting completely vertically, and his bent legs were straddling her tight and trembling thighs.
She watched, breathless, as he swallowed and smiled down at her.
He shook his head and dragged his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry."
Oh God, he was apologizing. That was the last thing she wanted. It had been such a long time since a man had looked at her like that--like she was a desirable, sexy woman. Since a man had touched her. Talked to her with a voice gritty with barely contained wanting.
"I'm not sorry," she stated matter-of-factly. Her heart lurched in her chest when she realized she was going to actually admit she'd been attracted to him all this time. Guys didn't like to hear stuff like that. Her words just might send him running.
She knew a woman on the hunt tended to do that to men--turn them into skittery cowards. She'd watched her mother chase away enough good guys to have learned that lesson early. They liked things to go the other way. She did too. But for some reason, she sensed Talen needed to know she was okay with this, that she held no expectations other than those promised in his touches and kisses.
"I noticed you the very first day you moved into the building," she whispered. "I've waited, hoping, wanting..." Oh God, she sounded so sappy. "Not that I'm expecting anything. But I wanted you to know I don't feel taken advantage of here. Okay? I'm not letting this happen because I'm feeling scared or vulnerable right now. I've wanted this--whatever this might be--for a while. Because I think you're the most intriguing man I've ever met."
He cupped her cheek and ran his thumb over her lip, and she stared up into his eyes, wishing she could read whatever secrets she saw in their shadowed depths. She knew he was struggling with something and wished she could find the right words to put whatever inner battle he was waging to rest.