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Charlotte Ellison had a life plan.
She'd had a life plan, she amended as she stomped up the wooden stairs. She'd had it all figured out, had carefully planned how to achieve her goals and gone after them, no holds barred. And she'd achieved so much, had always done what she'd set out to do. Had always, always gotten what she'd wanted.
Until two weeks ago when she'd made a complete and utter fool of herself. When she'd kissed the man she loved, the man she was so sure was going to be the father of her future children, and he'd responded with a pat on the head and a kind I'm just not into you.
Her ankle twisted. Pain shot up her leg and she almost did a face-plant on the stairs before catching her balance. She glared at her shoes. Stupid four-inch hooker heels. And to think, they'd actually seemed like a good idea when she'd bought them. She continued on, resolute and limping, the sound of her footsteps bouncing off the walls, the echoes mocking her.
But worse than that humiliation? The next day she'd discovered the real reason James Montesano didn't want her. He loved her sister.
Tears stung Charlotte's eyes, tickled her nose. She sniffed them back. She was through crying. Done. It was time to move on. Back in the saddle and all that. But it gratedoh, how it gratedthat she'd done everything right, every last damn thing, and still she'd failed in a stunning and spectacular fashion.
It wasn't fair.
Not when she'd worked so hard, planned so well and considered each and every possible outcome.
She pressed her lips together, bumped her fist against her thigh with each step. Okay, so she'd considered every possible outcome except the one that had actually happened. She could hardly believe she'd been so naive. So stupid.
No more lists. No more worrying about the future. No more plans. She'd learned her lesson. From now on, she was following her instincts. Being spontaneous. Taking the road not taken.
That road led here where, in a matter of minutes, she'd prove she was a desirable woman worthy of a man's attention. Not just any man, either. A gorgeous, sexy man with a cool, hooded gaze, a hard body covered in tattoos and a perpetual smirk. A dangerous man. The kind who would induce panic in her mother, give her father nightmares and make all of her friends weep with envy.
The kind of man she'd sworn never to get involved with, had never before been interested in. The kind of man Sadieher pretty, flighty, reckless sisterusually went for.
Biting her lower lip, Char stared at the warped wooden door. Behind it lay the key to her vindication.
Or her complete ruin.
She was putting her self-worth on the line here. Was tossing aside her morals and pride. He'd better be worth it.
She knocked, the sharp raps brisk and authoritative, as if her knees weren't shaking. As if she weren't terrified out of her mind.
When the door remained shut for the longest three minutes of her life, no sound of movement coming from behind it, she used the side of her fist to pound on the wood. Repeatedly.
His motorcycle was in the parking lot. He had to be home.
She wouldn't have the courage to come back if he wasn't, if she had time to think about this for too long.
The door was yanked opened, and there he stood. Not the man of her dreamsthat title belonged to her as-of-yet-unknown future husband. No, the man before her was more like the star of her deepest, darkest, sexiest fantasies.
Well, look at him, she thought in exasperation. With a sharply planed face way too pretty for hisor anyone else'sgood, Kane Bartasavich was tall, broad-shouldered and, at the moment, barefoot and shirtless. His wild mane of golden hair tousled around his face, the ends brushing his shoulders. His chest was smooth and leanly muscled, his arms well defined.
He had the word savagein flowing scripttattooed above his heart. A swirling tribal tat covered his left arm from shoulder to just above his elbow. His right biceps sported a flaming sword, his right side the word pride. Below his navel, three Chinese symbols formed a triangle, the bottom two disappearing under the waist of his low-slung jeans.
Jeans, she noted, her eyes widening, he'd zipped but not buttoned.
Warmth swept through her, fast and furious, stealing her breath, her thoughts.
She wished it would take her inhibitions, too. Her doubts.
Averting her gaze to somewhere less dangerous she worked moisture back into her mouth. Then checked out the symbols once more. Honestly, they were like a magnet, drawing her attention again and again.
Heat still stinging her cheeks, she opened her mouth to say something clever and charming, only to cringe when all that came out was a croak more often associated with Kermit the Frog than a highly intelligent, confident woman.
She tried again, this time managing a breathless, "Hi."
So much for dazzling Kane with her wit and tantalizing conversation. Good thing she wasn't here to talk.
He looked beyond her as if searching for the reason she was there. Finally, his gaze settled on her, his green eyes giving nothing away. "You lost, Red?"
Red. That was the tired and unoriginal name he'd christened her with upon their first meeting a few weeks ago. She supposed it was better than Freckles. "No."
"Then the building had better be on fire and you woke me to save my life." The implicit threat in his low words wasn't the least bit softened by the hus-kiness of his sleep-laden tone.
"It's after noon," she said. "Time to wakey-wakey."
"I work nights. I don't wakey-wakey until at least 2:00 p.m."
"I worked last night, too. But I'm up and dressed. And pleasant."
"This is you being pleasant?"
"I'm extremely pleasant," she snapped before getting herself under control. She inhaled, counted to five, then exhaled slowly. "I realize we haven't seen the best side of each other." Only because he brought out the worst in her. The man was infuriating. How Sadie could even tend bar for him was beyond Charlotte. "But suffice it to say, I'm an incredibly nice woman."
He stared at her, obviously not believing it. And he kept right on staring, as if he had all the livelong day to stand there.
She crossed her arms. Tapped her foot. Felt the minutes tick-ticking away.
Dropping her arms, she huffed out a breath. "Aren't you going to invite me in?"
"Hadn't planned on it."
Un-freaking-believable. Taking matters into her own handsthe best way to get things doneshe shoved open the door and brushed past him. "Anyone ever tell you you're rude?"
One side of his mouth kicked up in a condescending smirk. "You're the one who barged into my apartment without being invited, little girl."
She stayed rooted to her spot, her scalp prickling, a lump forming in her throat. Sadie had called her little girl when they'd had their fight two weeks ago. It'd been a huge, ugly blowup. One Charlotte was afraid they might not be able to get past.
Then again, she was still mad enough she wasn't certain she wanted to get past it.
And she wasn't a little girl. She was a fully grown, competent, independent woman. Wasn't she here to prove that?
She couldn't let Kane get to her. Yes, he was an ass. An ill-mannered, overgrown rebel without a cause. He was everything she didn't want in a man. Cocky. Arrogant. Snide.
She didn't like him.
She didn't have to. Not for this.
Kane walked into the tiny kitchen, granting her a view of the Aztec tattoo on his broad backa large bird, its wings outspread across his shoulder blades. Black flames dripped from the wings, licked along Kane's spine, which served as part of the narrowing tail. It ended in a sharp point between two fingerprint-sized indentations above the waist of his jeans.
She rubbed the pads of her thumbs against her forefingers. Wondered what it would be like to press them there. To have all of that skin, those lean muscles under her hands.
Wondered if she had the courage to find out.
She rolled her head like a boxer preparing for round one. Guess she'd soon know.
Charlotte set her purse on the table by the door, then joined him in the kitchen where he poured distilled water into a large, and expensive, coffeemaker.
"Need any help?" she asked, trying for cheerful but falling somewhere in the vicinity of aggrieved.
He didn't even glance her way. "Don't make me call the cops to come and haul you out of here."
She puffed out her cheeks. The least he could do is look at her. She hadn't wiggled into these jeans for her health. Was probably damaging a few internal organs by wearing the tight denim. Not to mention how bad her feet hurt. But the overall effect was worth it. The stupid heels added to her considerable height and the dark jeans made her legs look endless, cupped her butt and gave the illusion she had hipsno easy feat. Her shirt was silky and cut low enough to give a glimpse of her black lace bra. She'd straightened her hair, taken time with her makeup.
She'd been cursed with too many cute genes to ever pass for beautiful, but right now, she looked hot. Sexy.
Kane was obviously too blind to notice.
Leaning back against the counter, she subtly arched her back, held on to the edge with her hands, pushing her chest out. "Your apartment is " She glanced around. "Uh nice."
Lovely. If you liked worn, beige carpet, walls that needed a fresh coat of paintpreferably something other than the current dingy yellowand a kitchen straight from the 1970s, complete with orange Formica counters. At least it was clean. Then again, he kept O'Riley's, the bar downstairs, his bar, spotless.
A point in his favor.
"You're very neat," she blurted.
Biting the inside of her lower lip, she winced. Neat? Was that the best she could come up with? Next thing she knew she'd be complimenting him on his straight teeth and bringing up the weather.
Oh, sure, now he looked at her, when she was blushing and mentally kicking herself. Not just looked, either, he studied her, rather intently. "Are you off your meds or something?"
She giggledgiggled, for God's sakethe sound forced, high-pitched and way too loud. Why did flirting have to be so hard? It was as natural as breathing to Sadie. You'd think that was the kind of genetic trait that could be passed from sister to sister.
Charlotte swatted his arm, meant for it to be playful, but ended up hitting him hard enough to make her palm sting. He didn't so much as blink.
"Don't be silly," she said, seemingly unable to bring her tone back to its normal range. "I just meant that, well, you're so " Rough. Hard. Dangerous. She gestured to him in all his bare-chested, tattooed glory. Let it go at that. "I thought you'd be"
"No," she breathed, the lie like a stone in her throat, choking her. "I mean, maybe I'd briefly considered you'd be less tidy. With a motorcycle in the living room, a pet boa constrictor and a closet filled with scarred leather jackets."
"Stairway's too narrow for my bike," he said solemnly. "But who says the other two aren't true?"
She swallowed. He was probably kidding about the snake. Still, she stepped closer to him, kept an eye out for any sudden, slithering movements. "Anyway, it's nice. That you're tidy. Did you learn that in the military?"
In the act of getting a coffee mug from an upper cabinet, he paused. "I never told you I was in the service."
"Everyone knows. Small town. No secrets." Though seeing him now, he seemed a far cry from a spit-shined soldier. "Do you miss it? Being a Marine?"
He looked at her as if she'd just slapped his face and called his mother ugly. "I was a Ranger. In the Army."
"Ranger. That's Special Forces, right?" He grunted. So charming.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I always get them confused. Is it one grunt for yes, and two for no?"
No smile. No glint of humor in those green eyes. Nothing. He simply watched the coffeemaker as if it held the answers to life's most pressing questions. Since he refused to notice what a fetching image she made, she straightened. She needed a few more sessions at the yoga studio before she could hold the arched pose for any length of time, especially after a twelve-hour shift in the E.R.
Covering her mouth with the back of her hand, she yawned so hard her eyes watered. A shift that was quickly catching up with her.
She wandered into the living room. His apartment was small, maybe half the size of her own, with a view of the empty armory building next door and the Dumpster in the alley.
She continued her exploration, trailing her fingers over the back of a checked high-back chair when he stepped into the doorway. He leaned against the doorjamb, the angle causing his stomach muscles to clench, the ridges clearly defined. Steam rose from the mug in his hand as he sipped his coffee, his biceps rounding with the movement.
Now that was somebody who knew how to pose.
She felt his gaze on her, steady and searching, as she crossed the room, so she put a bit of sway into her walk, and wished there was more to see, to pretend to study, but the man put the minimal in minimalist. Other than the ugly chair, the only furnishings in the room were a small, flat-screen TV on top of a scarred wooden end table and a lumpy floral couch. No knickknacks. No decorative pillows or throws. No pictures or personal effects at all.
She glanced down the small hallway. The door to the right was shutbathroom?the other, at the end of the hall, open far enough to give her a glimpse of his bed, the covers rumpled, the pillow still indented from his head.
She imagined him getting out of that bed, tugging his jeans on, cursing and muttering about people interrupting his precious sleep.
Was the bed still warm from his body? Were his sheets soft or crisp? Did his scent linger on the pillow?
She crossed to stand in front of him. Funny how now that he looked at her, she felt more vulnerable, exposed, though he was the one only half-dressed. She had no idea what to do, what to say to get him to cooperate with her. That was the problem with not making plans. No road map. She needed one. Her sense of direction sucked.
"Uh I'm uh thinking of getting a tattoo," she said.