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Wakefulness brought a crescendo beat of pain piercing his brain. He tried to swallow, but the desert at high noon couldn't be as dry as his mouth.
What the hell was going on?
Disoriented, in agony, Jackson Savor got one eye open.
The source of his sharpest pain was a blinding ray of Kentucky's morning sunshine slicing through the part in his bedroom curtains.
His curtains. So he was in his own apartment.
With one question answered, he closed his eye again and struggled to take inventory.
Had he been captured? Tortured?
Slowly, very slowly, he moved his right hand. His arm felt like lead, but he lifted it.
Sluggish, a little weak, but not bound, thank God.
He tried to move his left hand and realized that something warm and soft kept him pinned in place. He inhaled and recognized the enticing, undeniable scent of woman.
Staying very still to avoid alerting anyone to his cognizance, Jackson opened his hand and.felt.
He didn't need a clear head or his vision to know he palmed a very sweet female backside.
The body beside him stirred. A slim, smooth leg came over his, gliding up and over his crotch. Inside he jolted, but outside he stayed perfectly still.
A woman purred, "You're awake?"
Both eyes shot open with recognition. He snapped his head around so fast that pain nearly blinded him.
The knee resting over his dick shifted as the woman readjusted to better see him. "Is something wrong?"
Shit, shit, shit. Carefully, his eyelids scraping like sandpaper, Jackson peered to his side and found none other than Alani Rivers. Sleepy, warm, soft. She watched him with sated, golden brown eyes, her pale hair spread out around heron his pillows.
She had the unmistakable look of a woman who'd spent a satisfying night doing the nasty.
Though no words came from his parched throat, the hand on her ass contracted. Yeah, so his brain wasn't quite workinghis instincts were fine and dandy.
Blushing, Alani ducked her face and rose up to an elbow.
The sheet pulled to her waist, giving him an up close and personal view of her really beautiful breasts and rosy nipples.
His thoughts cramped. So did his balls.
"So quiet this morning," she murmured as she bent and kissed his mouth. "Especially after last night."
Meaning what? Had they been noisy? Had he been chatty?
She chewed her bottom lip. "Are you feeling as shy as I am about the things we did?"
Shy? Never. What the hell had they done? He tried to sort it out, but beyond the pain and the confusion was the mind-boggling fact that he had Alani Rivers in his bed.
And he didn't know how any of it had happened.
Acid crawled around his guts and squirreled up his throat, making his stomach pitch. Groaning, he threw back the covers.
Didn't matter if his head fell off, he would not puke in front of her.
In only a few long strides, he made it to the connecting bathroom where he dropped to his knees in front of the john in just the nick of time.
He felt vile. Worse than that even.
What the hell had happened?
He looked up to see Alani in the doorway. Naked. He groaned again. "Go away."
"But.can I get you"
"Out!" He kicked at the door. It hit so hard that it bounced open again. He saw her shock and hurt, but damn it, no way in hell did he want her to see him like this.
Luckily for them both, she turned and strode away.
When the nausea finally subsided, he flushed the toilet and, feeling weaker than a newborn, used the edge of the sink to haul himself to his feet. His legs shook. His head thundered.
He turned on cold water, splashed his face, rinsed his mouth, and after a few seconds of mental searching that left him blank, he turned to stagger out.
Alani stood there yet again.
Jackson swayed. He tried, but he couldn't take it in. For a hell of a long time, he'd wanted her. Now she was here, but how? Why?
His burning gaze zeroed in on her neat triangle of golden brown pubic hair. Another question answered but it had nada to do with his current predicament.
She folded her arms under her breasts, which had the effect of getting his riveted attention off her lower body and up a littleas far as her chest anyway.
Ah, damn, so pretty. Had he touched her breasts? Kissed her nipples?
Dizziness assailed him. The possibility of passing out or puking more loomed near.
But God Almighty, she looked fine. Better than fine.
She looked like his.
Face red, voice high, she snapped, "Real nice, Jackson."
Picking up on the acrimony, he managed to meet her gaze through a fog of emotions. Uh-oh. She looked both hurt and pissed.
Her lips tightened. She gave one fleeting glance at his body, but when he remained mute, her eyes narrowed and she tossed her head, sending back her long fair hair. Like pale liquid, it poured over her smooth skin, mostly behind her shoulders, though one long strand trailed over her breast.
Mesmerized, he took a moment to realize she was talking to him.
"I told you this wasn't a good idea," she said. "I told you it would never work."
Looked to him like it had worked just fine.
But to make sure they were on the same page, he rasped, "It?" Bracing one hand on the door frame, the other squeezing the bridge of his nose, he started on a great admission. "Thing is, I don't remember"
"Talking about it?"
"Big surprise there, right?" Her attention tracked down over him, then jumped back to his face. "You were too busy getting me naked to listen to reason."
Sounded like him, he had to admit.
"Too busy racing for the bed," she complained, "to even think about my concerns, about what I said."
The words resonated over and over. He'd gotten her naked and in bed.
And then what?
Nothing rational came to his spinning brain, so Jackson just shook his head while again looking at her body. If it wasn't for the door frame supporting him, he'd be on his face on the floor, but he couldn't not look at her.
Wounded, disgusted, Alani turned on her heel and stalked back to his bed. Seeing the bounce of her rounded backside gave him a whole new reason to wish his vision wasn't so blurry.
"Alani " With no idea what to say, Jackson started to follow her. One jarring step was enough to warn him not to leave the dubious convenience of the bathroom.
His stomach did jumping jacks. In the nick of time he dropped back down in front of the toilet again.
This time when he finished, his stomach muscles ached but his guts felt a little quieter, as if he'd gotten some foul poison out of his system.
Unfortunately, Alani was now fully dressed and marching toward the front door.
Feeling like a weak, mewling pup, he stumbled behind her. "Wait."
Pausing, she looked back at himand all over him.
It suddenly dawned on Jackson that he was completely naked, too. He held on to the wall and willed away the pulsing agony in his noggin. "Let's.talk."
"So you can get sick again with regret? No thank you."
Regret? There was more to regret beyond the fact that he couldn't remember shitola?
She jerked his front door open but didn't storm away. With her back to him, her voice quavering, she said, "Don't worry about it, Jackson. I'm naive, I know, but I'm not dumb. I understand what happened."
"I won't say a word to anyone and since this will never happen again, you can just forget all about it."
The slamming of the door almost took out his knees. Slowly, he sank down to the cool hardwood floor in his hallway. His eyes closed, but he could still see Alani naked.
He didn't want to forget a damn thing. He wanted to remember.
Alani stayed busy as long as she could. She'd shopped, cleaned her car, had a light breakfast, seen an early matinee but no amount of distraction had helped. Her chest still hurt with the weight of thick emotion.
Humiliation vied with regret.
Why had she believed him?
Why had she allowed herself to be so easily swayed?
What could have been the most amazing night of her life now felt like the most degrading. Not that she could blame Jackson for everything. She'd been so infatuated with him for so long, it had required very little from him to win her over. A few small words and.
The groan vibrated out, heartfelt, sad and angry.
She'd done things with Jackson that she'd never before considered. He'd encouraged her to speak her mind, to be totally open and honest about what she wanted, what she enjoyedand he'd done the same. With him, she'd reveled in her sexuality.
And then, with the morning light, he'd taken one look at her and rushed off to be ill.
Her face flamed.
All along, from the very first day she'd met Jackson Savor, she'd known he was trouble. Over and over again she'd resisted him because an involvement with any man who worked with her brother, especially a man too much like her brother, seemed impossible.
Her cell phone rang, and she glanced at the caller ID. Speak of the devil Her brother had already called several times, but she wasn't up to speaking with him.
She waited until the ringing stopped, then checked her voice mail. Trace said, "Where are you, Alani? I've called three times now. I want to talk to you. Call me back."
She knew Trace fully expected her to do as told, but she couldn't talk to him right now. If she tried to, she'd get emotional, maybe even weepy. God knew Trace had always been protective, but since her kidnapping more than a year ago, he'd been insane with caution. If he knew she was upset, he'd be on the warpath in minutes. She had no intention of telling him about her misguidedand obviously briefliaison with Jackson, so there'd be no point in getting him caught up in her personal drama.
By necessity, given the responsibilities inherent in his work, Trace was autocratic by nature, occasionally overbearing and always too confident.
Jackson was the same.
Actually, so was Trace's friend, Dare, who had worked with Trace from the inception of the business.
They had typical personalities for lethally honed mercenarieshow else could they remain so successful in their efforts to help others?
Of course, Trace, Dare and Jackson were the only mercenaries she knew. And while each of them was different, they were also, in the most basic ways, the same.
They were men who smiled while squaring off with danger, men who didn't flinch when put to the test, men who, without a single second of hesitation, would protect others with their own lives.
They were good men.
They were scary men.
Most people, even without knowing of her brother's vocation, still feared him, and with good reason; Trace emanated danger and capability. To meet him was to be wary of him, and so dating had never been easy for her. Guys took one look at her brother and decided it was safer to keep their distance.
But Jackson wasn't like most guys. Because he was on a par with Trace, not much ever intimidated him. In fact, he felt at ease jesting with Trace, even taunting him on occasion with his good humor. Knowing Trace and Dare counted on him in the most dangerous situations, Jackson had promised her that his job security wouldn't be affected by their involvement.
But then, he'd also sworn that it wouldn't be awkward. Now she was on her own, and it was so excruciatingly awkward that her face continued to burn.
Unfortunately, Trace called yet again as she parked in the driveway. The phone rang four times and then went to voice mail. Alani just knew Trace would show up on her doorstep if she didn't touch base.
Hating to fib, but feeling she had no choice, she sent back a text message saying only, "I'm at the movies. I'll call you soon."
Then she turned off the phone.
After gathering the clothing bags from her trunk, she started around the walkway that led from the driveway on the side of her small but perfect house to the front door.
She drew up short at the sight of Jackson sprawled out on her porch steps, a cowboy hat on his head, mirrored sunglasses hiding his eyes.
He didn't move, and neither did she.
For half a minute she stood there frozen, unsure what to say, what to do.
He had an utterly relaxed look about him, but then, Jackson had perfected a deceptively indolent pose that hid razor-sharp reflexes and phenomenal speed.
Last night, all night, he'd been far from indolent.
Breathing fast, Alani studied him. His continued stillness suggested sleep. Even when she shifted her bags and inched closer, he didn't move.
The tall oak in her front yard offered plenty of shade, but Jackson hadn't removed the hat or the sunglasses. He was now clean-shaven. A snowy white T-shirt pulled across his wide chest and shoulders and hung looser around his taut abs.
Age had worn out his faded jeans in select places, such as at the knees, the hems and where they cupped his sex.
Even now, so tranquil, he looked.impressive.
The bombardment of awareness stiffened her knees.
Memories of touching his body, tasting his hot flesh, sent a tide of sensation through her veins. She remembered wrapping her hand around his erection, how he'd groaned all deep and rough, the insanely sexual things he'd whispered to her as suggestions and encouragement, how he'd covered her hand with his own, showing her how hard to squeeze, how fast to stroke
His total lack of inhibition had left her free to be less inhibited.
She swallowed audiblyand stared some more.
He sat with his long legs loose, one foot braced on a step, the other stretched out, his elbows back, his breathing deep and even.
Alani licked her lips and started to slowly, silently retreat.
"Don't make me chase you, darlin'."
Shock snapped her shoulders back. The big faker!
He'd been watching her watch him. Ohhhhh. "I thought you were asleep!"
"And so you figured you could rape me with your pretty eyes? Or will you deny that?"
If she had a rock close by, she'd throw it at him. Teeth set, Alani asked, "What are you doing here?"