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His hands were stained and rough-skinned. Large. They were the hands that testosterone hath made, she would think later, when she could think. His grip was all male and possessive. His fingers dug into the pale skin at her hips.
Something in her responded to him. Everything in her responded to him.
"You have that wild streak of your grandmother's, Lara Jordan." Her mother had poured her disapproval on Lara every chance she got. "Mark my words, girls like you come to a bad end," she used to say, then would add with a disgusted glare, "every time."
Lara had fought that parental prejudice all her life, only to realize now that her mother had been right. At the urging of the man who was kissing all common sense from her, she lay back on the wood-topped tableflour dust be damnedand let him situate himself between her legs.
She was twenty-two, alone in life for the first time, and she was about to lose her virginity to the most dangerous man she'd ever set eyes on. And she couldn't claim for a moment that he'd seduced her. She was the one who'd strolled over to his bakery next door with a trumped up excuse, after hours.
"Here we are, the butcher and the baker," she said just so there'd be something in the air beyond their panting.
He licked a fiery trail down her neck and stopped to press his hot lips against her racing pulse. "If a candlestick maker tries to interrupt, I won't be held responsible."
They groaned together at the lame play on the nursery rhyme.
She didn't know any candlestick makers, but she thought she might have found the candlestick.
Her skirt came up. Her panties slipped away. His mouth scorched her nipples through the thin fabric of her bra. She ran her fingers over the corded muscles of his back. He was almost a full head taller than she and built like a brick oven. She was built like, well, like a butcher, but she felt feminine next to him, desirable in his hot gaze from the beginning.
When she'd decided to take over and run the butcher shop she'd inherited from her uncle, she'd considered that she might be getting in over her head. She had no idea how deep. But this was the life she wanted adventure, challenge, and not the staid, average existence her mother had lived, where every move was dictated by rules and more rules. She was going to be wild and free.
The man between her legs lifted his head, his dark gaze burning into hers. He said one word only, "Mine."
"Yes," she whispered as he pushed inside her with incredible restraint.
They'd known each other for a week.
Two years later
The day had been going to hell in a handbasket even before his past decided to rise up and spit into his face. Undercover agent Reid Graham watched with mixed emotions as Lara Jordan walked in on the arm of a corporate stiff whose suit cost more than his monthly government salary.
Of all the restaurants in all the world, and she walks into this one. Tonight of all nights.
Lust and anger hit him in the gut in about equal doses. Lust, because the memory of their one night two years before was still his number-one favorite fantasy. Anger because a single word from her could blow his cover and jeopardize an operation in which he'd invested years' worth of sweat and blood. One wrong word could easily get the both of them killed. And not just them. He glanced around the crowded dining room, frowning at the people, who could go from innocent bystanders to victims in the blink of an eye.
"So you're definitely not a cop." Jen, the coldly beautiful blonde sitting across the table from him, played with her food.
"Hell no, darlin'." He wasn't lying. Technically. "I'm a friend of a friend." He gave her an easy, relaxed smile. "Hey, I've been where you are now. Gets easier. Believe me."
Soft Christmas music danced through the air, the room filled with the scent of pine. The walls were decorated with about two dozen Christmas wreaths, each labeled, showcasing contest winners from local schools.
He pretended to be scanning the holiday decorations while he stole another glance at Lara. She was laughing up at her guy, her face lit like a Christmas tree. Her hair was shorter than two years ago, her impossible curls swinging around her jawline, leaving her creamy neck out there for everyone to see.
Something deep inside his gut twisted.
"I want out." Jen put down her fork. "I want to disappear. I'm not handing the CD over until I get that guarantee. And I want money."
"Let me work on that." Tonight, he was Dave Marshall, a shady figure who operated in the gray area between the two worlds of right and wrong, with connections in each. "Got anything to prove that you're serious about this?"
She glanced around, then pulled a black cell phone from her purse, slid it across the table. "It's Kenny's backup phone. I pretended that mine broke and borrowed it for today."
He palmed the phone and stuck it into his jeans pocket. "I'll have it back to you by morning. How you doin', darling?"
She glanced down, her hand going to her still flat belly. "He doesn't know. I'm not gonna tell him either. He took up with that bitch. The jerk thinks he can keep us both." She gave a disgusted snort. Then a sigh. "My sister knows." She moved her hand back onto the table.
For a second her shirt gaped, and he could see the small firearm she carried. A good reminder that she was more than a frightened pregnant woman who was trying to leave her two-timing terrorist boyfriend. She wasn't exactly as pure as the driven snow, although she was playing the damsel in distress to the hilt.
"I only got involved in the whole mess because of him." She put a touch of vulnerability in her voice. "You can get me out by this time tomorrow, right? Before they notice the CD is missing. Dr. Julie said you can do anything." She flashed him a smile that promised carnal benefits as his success fee.
Dr. Julie Lantosemergency care provider for injured criminals who preferred to avoid hospitals, and an informant on the sidehad referred him to Jen. Dr. Julie had an illegal drug habit that her shady patients supported, and the FBI agent she passed information to overlooked.
Reid leaned back in his chair and smiled right back at Jen. She was hot and she knew it. She was used to running with men who could get her exactly what she wanted. If becoming her new best friendor morewas what he had to do to get information on the sleeper cell he was investigating, then so be it. It wouldn't be the worst sacrifice he'd ever had to make for his job.
She straightened her back. Her D-cups jutted out even farther, the glittering tank top she wore under the open shirt stretching enough to show a clear outline of her nipples.
Maybe if Lara hadn't been in the room, seven tables down by the window, he would have been more impressed. But she was there, and she threw him off his game. So instead of suggesting to Jen that they go someplace private to talk some more, he asked, "How about dessert?" And told himself that he was only stalling because if he stood up he might draw Lara's attention.
When Jen's foot ran up his leg under the table, he sighed with weariness and pretended it was pleasure. If it came down to it, if it was the only way to get her to talk, he would sleep with her. The terrorist group he was investigating was in the endgame of something big. They were ready to make their move, and he still didn't have any idea what was going down or where.
Even if hitting the sack with Jen meant ending his career, or that she couldn't be prosecuted because he would have messed up her case, he would do it to save lives. That was his priority. And he was determined to keep his eyes on the prize. He'd been in the business too long to toe any line without asking questions, to obey any rules that went against his better judgment. Too many lives had been lost. He'd taken too many lives. Something inside him desperately needed to make up for that. He would do whatever he had to do this time. There were no limits.
If only Lara would get up now and walk away.
Instead, she looked up and straight at him, blinked once, hard, before her eyes grew wide with shock, her face going pale.
"Hey, you know what?" He pushed to standing. "Forget dessert. Let's go someplace more private."
Jen picked up her purse and stood at once. She was game.
He left a couple of twenties on the table, enough to cover their dinner, tip and then some. Jen's smile widened as she put on her coat. Whatever anticapitalist principles the cell embraced, she sure didn't look like she was the enemy of money.
Lara was standing, too, saying something to her date, her eyes still on Reid. She looked softer, a little curvier than he'd remembered. She moved forward, her elegant black silk dress clinging to a body that had nothing to do with planklike photo models and everything to do with filling a man's hands in the most perfect way.
He shrugged into his jacket, took Jen's arm and pulled her behind him toward the door.
Lara's step faltered. Then she gathered herself and kept coming toward him.
He figured the distance to his car. They weren't going to make it. The gig would be up the second Lara called his real name, Reid instead of Dave. They were at the door. Through it. He scanned the parking lot that took up one full block.
The lights of the city blocked out the stars in the sky. The buzz of New York filled the air, the sound of millions of cars and people. To the locals, it was a beloved symphony. The tourists usually found it energizing and exciting. The constant buzz annoyed the hell out of him. How was a guy supposed to hear his enemies coming?
He pulled his keys from his pocket. "Hey, why don't you get in the car? I better pop into the bathroom before we leave. I'll be back out in a minute."
Jen pulled her coat together as she reached for the keys.
Then several things happened at the same time.
Lara came out the doorsooner than he'd expected. Could be she had run. She wrapped her arms around herself as the wind hit her. "Reid? What are you"
Her voice was lost in tires squealing as a dark SUV whipped up to the sidewalk and two masked men, one in the passenger seat and one in back, opened fire.
Reid dove for Lara, vaguely aware of Jen hitting the ground like a pro behind him. He gathered Lara against his body and rolled for cover behind a massive sign that advertised the restaurant.
A bullet penetrated the sign just an inch from his face, a good reminder that flimsy barricades, car doors and such, only stopped bullets in the movies. But at least the cover kept the shooters from being able to take exact aim.
When the shots had quieted for a second, he stuck his head out. The SUV was backing up to get closer to them.
He shoved to his feet and yanked Lara up, dragging her behind him, lunging for cover behind the closest car, then the next and the next as bullets pinged around them. Then he was by his own car at last, and the next second they were inside, and then he was driving, getting the hell out of there, having momentary advantage in going forward while their pursuers had to drive in reverse.
The last thing he saw before he shot out onto the busy boulevard was the dark SUV turning around to follow, and Jen's lifeless body in a pool of blood, illuminated by the light over the restaurant's entrance. An image straight from the scene-ending shot of an old-fashioned thriller.
Except this was real life, dammit. And he had just lost his most promising asset in a top-priority case. His teeth ground together as he stepped on the gas, weaving in and out of traffic.
"Reid?" Lara's voice sounded uncharacteristically weak.
She was pressed into the seat as far as she could be from him, looking like she was seeing a ghost. Which she was, in a way. As far as she knew, he'd died a little over two years ago, the night he'd lost all control with her at the bakery.
"I don't understand"
He couldn't afford to be distracted now. He scanned the rearview mirror and swore under his breath.
He should have shot back at the bastards. If he'd got them, Jen would still be alive, his narrow doorway to the cell still open. If he'd injured them, the FBI could have interrogated them. If he'd shot them dead, fingerprints could have still been collected. Clues. Links to something.
Instead, he'd lost Jen and gained absolutely nothing.
Gained Lara's life, a small voice said inside. And he found that as badly as he'd messed up tonight's operation, he couldn't work up any serious rage. Which didn't mean that plenty of anger didn't simmer below the surface.
Still dazed, Lara was straightening in her seat, gathering herself. "But you died in the fire."
He turned down the next street, took another turn, then another, going in the opposite direction he had been before. He watched his rearview mirror for the dark SUV, but couldn't see it. "I don't have time to explain."
Why in hell did she have to show up in his life now? Why did she have to show up at all? Ever.
She put her seat belt on with hands that were unsteady but not shaky. She had good hands. Working hands. Strong. She was no shrinking violet. Even now, minutes after escaping mortal danger, she was pulling herself together. Lara Jordan was one tough chick. He'd always liked that about her. As much as he ever let himself truly like anything about anyone.
For the most part, he was big on keeping his distance.