Pepper Yates felt the intense scrutiny stroking over her as she made her way to her apartment building. She'd been feeling it for over two weeks now, ever since her new neighbor had moved in, but she'd never get used to it.
Dangerous anticipation crawled up her spine.
She didn't acknowledge the man leaning over his balcony, muscular arms folded along the railing, shirtless, smilingtracking her every move.
She didn't, in any way, encourage him. He was out of her league in a big way. His attention made her tense, more so with every incident.
Uncertainty gave her a faltering step, causing her cheap canvas slip-on sneakers to make an obnoxious shuffling sound. Her long skirt kicked around her shins. Her chest constricted.
Keeping her head down, her paper bags of groceries held securely in her arms, she pretended not to notice him.
She should win an Oscar for her performance, because seriously, who wouldn't notice him? If she had to guess, she'd say women came to him easily. He had that type of raw, cocky presence. The kind of presence that left her on edge.
It probably ate him up that she ignored him. That was the only explanation for his continued attention. But what else could she do?
The hot August sun beat down on her head. She would dearly love a cool swim right about now. But not with him around.
It seemed her carefree days of swimming were well behind her. It made her sad to think of all that had been lost, all that she'd had to forfeit, in the name of survival.
But thanks to her brother, she had survived, she reminded herself. And that's what mattered most.
It was also the number one reason she couldn't be drawn in by the new neighbor's lure.
He should have a big D for danger on his oft-naked chest.
As she hastened her steps in, Pepper dropped her head so far that her chin nearly touched her chest.
Of course he called out to her. He always called out to her. It made no sense, but her rebuffs hadn't dissuaded him at all.
The man had a rock-solid ego.
"Evening, Ms. Meeks."
When she'd taken the alias, it hadn't been a big deal, because she wasn't a big deal. Few ever spoke to her. None ever called out to her.
But he did.
She drew a fortifying breath, peeked up at him and gave a subdued nod. "Evening."
He disappeared off the balcony and she just knew he was coming inside to corral her in the narrow hallway.
Why wouldn't he leave her alone?
The apartment building was
unpleasant. Peeling paint from the walls, mold in the corners, carpet with stains she didn't want to investigate too closely.
She knew why she was there.
Why was he?
Dreading every foot that brought her closer to him, she went up the squeaking steps to her second-floor apartment, and
there he was.
Knowing he waited for her, she stalled.
He lounged back against his door, which was right next to hers, arms crossed over his bare chest, his brown hair disheveled, five o'clock shadow on his jaw. He wore only wrinkled khaki shorts that hung low on his lean hipsand he took her breath away.
Seeing him again had the same impact it'd had the first time she'd laid eyes on him. He was so sinfully appealing that it staggered her senses.
What did he want?
Not the usual, not with how he looked, and how
she looked. So then, why did he so relentlessly pursue her?
The long walk to the grocery and back againsomething she usually enjoyedleft her hot, damp with perspiration and in no mood for playing games.
At least, not these games.
She had to avoid his gaze orhumiliating thoughthe just might see everything she felt, everything she thought.
About him. About the incredible body that he insisted on displaying.
And how she'd like to rub her body all over his
Before she could figure out a way to dodge him, he pushed away from the wall, his smile welcoming, his dark eyes warm. She swallowed her sigh. "Hello."
"Here, let me help you with that."
Like she couldn't handle a few bags of groceries? Why was he bothering her like this? Flustered, talking too fast, Pepper said, "That's okay, really. I've got"
He scooped the bags away from her and gestured for her to precede him to her apartment.
"it." Left empty-armed and unnerved, she kept her shoulders slumped and did her best to bank her reaction to him. "really, Mr. Stark, I don't"
"We're neighbors, so call me Logan."
She didn't want to call him anything and tried to convey that with a show of umbrage. "Really, Mr. Stark, I don't need any help."
His grin widened. Teasing. Flirting. "You are so prickly."
How could he make that sound like a compliment?
"I am not"
He snatched her keys from her, too, and short of grabbing for them, which would only make her look foolish, she had no choice but to follow him.
"prickly," she mutteredprobably in a really prickly way. While he unlocked her door, she stared at his broad back. He was tanned, his sleek skin almost as damp as her own.
Her fingers twitched with the need to touch him, to coast her palms over his heated skin and taut muscles.
He turned toward her, and she got the up close and personal view of his chest. It shocked her, but she noticed his small brown nipples, how soft chest hair half hid them
"If not prickly, then what?"
She glanced up, saw he'd been watching her as she studied him, and wanted to sink into the floor. Her face went hot, her body hotterbut probably not for the reasons he assumed.
"I'm private" Although, the way she'd just looked at him, sort of eye-raping himoh, Godit was no wonder he didn't understand that.
Every single time he got within her view, she visually molested him. His fault in part, because he always had so much skin on display; she wasn't used to anyone like him, anyone who looked as good as he did.
A touch to her chin brought up her face and nearly stopped her heart. "Saying hi to a neighbor somehow intrudes on your privacy?"
No, no, no. He couldn't touch her. She couldn't let him touch her. Time to escape.
Ducking around him, Pepper swung the door open, stepped in fast ahead of him, then turned to block his way. "I barely know you."
"I'm trying to remedy that, right?" He looked into her apartment with curiosity and surprise. One brow lifted at the mess she knew he saw.
So she wasn't ubertidy. So she was actually a slob. Maybe that would repel him.
"I keep to myself." She awkwardly snatched back her groceries and straightened her spine. "Others should do the same."
"Yeah, maybe I could." Giving up his scrutiny of her cluttered living space, he leaned in her door frameall six-feet-plus of him. His broad shoulders kept her from closing the door.
Patient, silent, he waited for her to meet his gaze.
Girding herself, Pepper looked upand felt caressed by his suggestive, intimate attention. She cleared her throat and prompted him with, "You could
"Maybe stop chasing your skirt." His voice dropped. "If you weren't so damn cute."
Shock took her back a step.
Cute? He must be deranged, because no way was he desperate. Why would he say such an absurd thing? His expression softened. "You don't think you're cute?"
The laugh strangled in her throat, and her automatic "No" sounded like a croak.
Cute? Hardly. She kept her dull blond hair pulled back in a low, unflattering ponytail at the nape of her neck, showcasing a face devoid of even the most subtle makeup. She wore clothes any respectable grandmother would disdain, with shoes so ugly they made her sad when she stepped into them.
She slumped when she walked, mumbled when she talked. Or at least, she remembered to mumble when a certain neighbor didn't push her past the breaking point.
"Well, I think you are," he said, still watching her, his tone almost
How dare he feel sorry for her?
Pride rose to the forefront, returning her backbone.
"Is that a joke, Mr. Stark?"
Shifting his stance, he leaned in andwhile she held her breathsaid with distinct insistence, "Call me Logan."
Oh, good Lord. He was close enough that she felt his warm, moist breath and could see the thick, dark lashes on his eyes.
Her temperature spiked. "Oh, umm." Those sexy lips lifted into a satisfied grin. "And I'll call you.?"
When Pepper only stared at him, a little dazed, his grin twitched. And man, oh, man, she wanted to kiss that mouth of his.
Kiss it and
Catching herself, Pepper shook her head and tried to ease the door shut. "Goodbye, Mr. Stark."
His big hand flattened on the door near her shoulder. "Come on, throw me a bone here." Without much effort, he held the door open. "How will it hurt if I have your name?"
What to do, what to do?
He was so pushy that her continued refusal looked absurd.
Grudgingly, she said, "Sue."
Now more amused, he admitted, "I know."
"You manage the building, so I already saw your name on my rental agreement." He tweaked her chin again. "But I wanted to hear you say it anyway."
Her huff of affront did nothing to get him out of her doorway.
"So." He looked up and down the hallway. "You're a woman alone, and this isn't the best apartment building, or the best neighborhood."
Now he was a master of understatement? "You're insulting my management skills?" Did he think that'd win her over?
"You're only responsible for notifying the owner if rent is late or repairs are needed, right?" Without letting her reply to that, he said, "Let me leave you my number. Anything comes up, or if anyone bothers you"
"You 're bothering me."
His gaze zeroed in on her mouth. "That's why you're flushed?"
Oh, God. More heat rushed to her skin's surface.
"Really, Mr. Stark"
"Logan," he corrected softly. "Say it for me. Just once. Then I'll go."
He wanted to
So it appeared. And worse, he succeeded just by presence alone. "Logan," she agreed through stiff lips. "I need to go." Before I do something stupidlike invite you in.
Or kiss you.
Or drag you down to the floor and
He pulled a card from his pocket. "My number. Seriously. Any problem at allor if you just want to visitgive me a call, okay?"
"All right." Not on your life. "Thank you."
As if he knew her thoughts, he gave a warm laugh and stepped out of the doorway. "See you later, Sue."
Not if I see you first. "Goodbye, Logan." She started to close the door.
And he said, "Now that wasn't so painful, was it?"
She clicked the door shut in his face, then dropped against it.
Painful? Not exactly.
Stirring? She felt like a blender on high speed, all her emotions, all her dormant desires, churning together in a frenzy.
It had been too longlike foreverand she was too deprived to be around a specimen like him without imagining the impossible. She needed to find a way to avoid him, but she'd have to do it without causing suspicion. And there was the rub.
Avoiding him was suspicious.
Pepper turned so that it was her shoulders against her door. Head down, eyes closed, she struggled to come up with a plan.
Maybe, she reasoned to herself, she was going about this all wrong. Any woman would be flattered by Mr. Stark's attention.
A woman like her, especially so.
Slowly, she lifted her head. Did she have a good reason to engage him in conversation? To get to know him better?
She pressed her hands to her cheeks and fought off a smile.
Yes, that's what she would do. She would stop deflecting him, and insteadshe'd shyly reciprocate. If that didn't scare him off once and for all, she didn't know what would.
Logan Riske sauntered back to his temporary digs with a feeling of encouragement.
So he'd had to be pushy. Again.
So he'd had to practically force a conversation on her. At least this time, he'd been successful.
More than successful.
The lady could deny it till doomsday, but he felt her awareness. If her damned brother didn't have her so cowed, she'd probably be knocking on his door right now.
Thinking of her brother, Rowdy Yates, always soured his mood. No doubt Rowdy had run roughshod over her for years, so Logan had to proceed cautiously.
He ran a hand over his chest, considering all the twists and turns of her ruse. It was a rusehe couldn't be wrong about that. Yes, she looked different from the photos he had, but there was something in the eyes, in the way she looked at him.
After two years of searching, the end drew near.
She was the one woman he needed, the link that'd get him everything he'd worked for.
He thought about the small grainy photos online, the newspaper reports. Her wide-eyed innocence had shown through. She looked a little worse now than she had two years ago, but he supposed running, and hiding, and putting up with her brother could do that to a woman.
His hands curled into fists.
Most everything he'd uncovered had been on Rowdy Yates, but bits and pieces of Pepper had surfaced, as well. He knew she was younger than thirty, and he knew she was shy.
He hadn't known she would be so tall. At around five-ten, she stood only three inches shorter than him. And while no one would accuse her of being pretty, he hadn't known that her light brown eyes would be so expressive. When she looked directly at him, he felt it.
Her hair was so dark a blond, it was nearly brown. Long, but lank. Dull. Untidy, with frizzy ends, despite her habit of securing it in a ponytail.
And still he wanted to see it loose. He wanted to feel it in his hands.
And speaking of untidy
His quick glimpse of her living room had been a shocker. He'd just naturally assumed that a plain Jane like her would be ultraneat, like the stereotypical mousy woman who lived like a maiden aunt.
Ha! Not even close.
Clothes, magazines, empty cola cans and a pizza box had all littered her small living space. Beyond that area he'd seen a towel on the floor of her bathroom, and through an open door, her unmade bed with a quilt more off the bed than on it.
For some reason, knowing she wasn't a neat freak made him smile. It was such a contradiction to his assumptions.
He again pictured her sloppy bed and wondered if she'd had a sleepless night. He knew for certain she'd spent the nightevery nightalone.
Maybe that was why, more than once, she'd stolen a glimpse of his body.
And that rosy flush?
Yeah, that hadn't been annoyance he'd seen stirring in her expressive eyes.
Eyes that couldn't hide her secrets.
Not from him. As a cop, he excelled in uncovering mysteries.
As a man, he knew how to seduce a woman. Sue Meekswhat a jokewould be no different. What he found odd was his own reaction.