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Staking His Claim
A Line of Duty Novel
By Tessa Bailey, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Tessa Bailey
All rights reserved.
The studio audience inside Lucy Mason's head gave a collective, sympathetic awww.
"This was supposed to be our week, Sasha." Lucy picked up her iced coffee and plunked it back down, never taking her gaze off her best friend. "Ill-advised exploits, questionable fashion choices. Educational museum trips." She mumbled that last part, since it hadn't exactly been part of their monthlong discussion. "I can't believe you're blowing me off for a dude."
Sasha winced. "I know. I know. It's just ... Carter."
"Carter." Lucy's brow wrinkled. "Is this the same Carter who made a pass at your mom when she came to visit?"
"That was a misunderstanding."
"I'll just bet." She moved her drink in jerky circles on the table, letting the tinkling ice cool it even further, hoping a sip would cool the fire in her throat, brought on by the need to shout. Minutes before she and her roommate were set to depart Syracuse University, where they'd both, at long last, completed their respective master's programs, and her plans were being crushed by a guy who'd once pissed himself on their couch after too much tequila. Unacceptable. As if this violation of the "chicks before dicks manifesto" weren't bad enough, her brother, Brent, who'd been their designated ride to New York City, had bailed at the last minute.
God, I'm sorry, Luce. Something came up with Hayden's family. She's presenting her father with some fancy-ass award and if I don't go, she'll castrate me.
Her brother wasn't one to hold back. Even if it meant talking to his sister about his balls. Going to live with him in their childhood house in Queens at the age of twenty-five was going to be a real scream. Until she became gainfully employed and found her own place, that is. Thanks to her growing list of potential employers alphabetically arranged in an Excel spreadsheet, it wouldn't be long. In the meantime, she'd have to set some ground rules, like no testicular talk. Or making out with his fiancée anywhere her eyeballs might encounter it.
In his place today, her brother had sent his friend Matt Donovan. Another cop. One she'd never met, but based on Brent's suggestion to bring oodles of reading material for the drive, she gathered Matt was not a sparkling conversationalist. It hadn't bothered her much, knowing she'd have Sasha to chat with in the backseat, but now that option was no longer on the table. Truth be told, she felt a little slighted.
Okay, a lot slighted. Her brother and best friend making for greener pastures within twenty-four hours of each other didn't do fabulous things for her ego. They hadn't meant it that way, she rationalized. They loved her. Still, it was two more instances she could add to her list of times she'd come in second place. Lucy Mason, salutatorian. First runner-up at the debate team finals as an undergrad. Hell, just this week she'd been named second in her class, among the other language majors. While these were certainly accomplishments, sometimes it felt like no matter how hard she tried, someone always beat her by an inch. Sasha and Brent ditching her for their respective lovers was no different.
Pity party of one, your table is ready.
Trying to dispel the useless feeling, she took a long pull on her iced coffee. Sasha had a healthy glow to her deep-brown skin, excitement shining in her eyes that hadn't been there this morning. Just because she hadn't had sex since Lost was on the air didn't give her the right to be a begrudger. "So what are your plans instead? You better be doing something amazing. Seriously, I want goose bumps."
Sasha did a little dance in her seat, accompanied by a squeal. "We're borrowing his cousin's house at Cayuga Lake. Just me, Carter, and a handful of naughty DVDs."
Lucy perked up. "What? Like porn?"
"No. Like Cruel Intentions and Wild Things. Movies where girls make out so as to guarantee a good evening for yours truly." Sasha tilted her head. "By the way, you have never looked as enthusiastic in your life as you just did when porn entered the equation."
"Lower your voice," Lucy whispered.
"Porn-o-graph-y!" Sasha belted out, opera-style, drawing every eye in the coffeehouse.
Lucy shook her head. "I'm so not going to miss you."
"Liar. You will pine for me."
"If you drown in Cayuga Lake, I will clear out your sex toy stash as promised, but that's all I can guarantee you. Not a single line of poetry will be penned in your honor."
"At lease I'll die happy." Sasha rose and came to join Lucy on the bench, where she crushed her in a tight hug. "Hey, I'm really sorry. You know that, right?"
"Yeah," Lucy murmured into her friend's hair. "Now go on. Get."
Sasha pulled back to study her. "Listen, if I die in an unfortunate water skiing accident or too many orgasms —"
"Or both." Sasha nodded. "Don't dump my stash. I hereby bequeath all manner of pleasure machines to you, my pasty, studious little friend."
Lucy feigned surprised pleasure. "Me? I-I don't know what to say."
"Say you'll put New York on its knees this week." Her friend's expression suddenly turned serious. "Don't use my bailing as an excuse to hole up with a stack of books. You've earned some fun, graduate. Have at it."
Lucy stared after Sasha thoughtfully as she exited the coffee shop. Her friend knew her too well. Initially, when Sasha canceled on her, there had been a tiny little punch of relief in her chest that she was off the hook. That she wouldn't have to put herself out there as planned, but could continue her two-year streak of hiding from the unknown. Safe in her self-imposed introversion. She hadn't always been this way. No, no. Her first four years in college had been spent exploring the Mason daredevil gene she'd inherited. Right up until she'd organized an on-campus bonfire in protest of censorship in their textbooks, landing her in jail overnight. Hello wake-up call. Needless to say, her brother had lost his shit and been forced to re-mortgage his house to bail her out. Not to mention covering the fines she'd incurred.
Since her night in the big house, she'd spent her days and nights busting her ass to make her family proud, instead of inspiring ceaseless rounds of head-shaking every time her name came up. Making sure Brent knew she didn't take for granted the tuition he worked two jobs to provide. In the very near future, she would have a job that would finally ease the pressure from his shoulders. She could finally pitch in to support her parents and her other older brother's family while he fought overseas. Her family would take pride in her, instead of taking cover every time she entered the room.
That staunch dedication to success hadn't left room for much more, and she'd allowed her social life to dwindle until Sasha's recaps of Saturday nights were her main source of entertainment. As soon as she had a steady income and a place to call her own, she'd been planning to remedy that oversight. Then again, maybe Sasha had a valid point. What better place to kick off her new lecture- and homework-free life than a week in New York City?
The bell tinkled over the coffee shop door, drawing Lucy's attention. Had Sasha changed her mind? Or maybe she'd forgotten someth —
Lucy's thoughts drained, as if her brain had turned into a colander. Every muscle in her body coiled tightly as a man stepped right out of every woman's fantasy and somehow materialized in the coffee shop. Before anything else registered, she noticed the way he walked. He moved like he was walking toward a lover. A lover he planned on thoroughly roughing up before making her scream obscenities into a pillow. The sensual, detached movement of his hips was a complete contradiction to his eyes and jaw, however. They were set firmly, making him look ruthless. Unmovable.
Dark hair, dark expression, dark clothing. He was just ... several shades of dark. Except for his eyes, she amended as he coolly scanned the shop. His eyes were light gray. In the midst of all that darkness, they stood out like silvery marcasite.
She couldn't stop her gaze from tracking downward, over broad shoulders, a wide chest, and a heavy leather belt that rode low on his waist. As if a good stretch would reveal his happy trail and that cut vee leading into his jeans. Speaking of jeans, good Lord, the man's ass was a bona fide work of art. As he strode toward the nearby counter to place his order, his work boots not making a single sound, those tight buns set off a choir of rejoicing angels in her head.
Then he opened his mouth to address the barista and the angels' mouths snapped shut.
"Can you tell me where 39 Juniper Street is located?"
Huh? Lucy's spine went rigid. That was her address. Perhaps he was looking for someone else in her building? She and Sasha shared a two-bedroom in an off-campus dwelling, in which there were at least twenty other apartments. That had to be it. This work of male perfection could not be the boring, stuffy ex-military sniper her brother had sent to squire her down to the city. Brent's description could not have painted a different picture. No, this guy had to be looking for someone else.
The barista behind the counter looked like she'd just gone for a swim in a lake full of stupid. "What?" She cleared her throat and smiled. "I mean ... what?"
Buns of Glory sighed. "Thirty-nine Juniper. My GPS says it's nearby, so I thought I'd walk the rest of the way. Can you point me in the right direction?"
Another barista joined her. "What?"
Now Lucy sighed on his behalf. Communication must be difficult when your ass whittled the opposite sex's vocabulary down to one word.
"Never mind, I think I can track it down." He gave a faint smile and Lucy swore she could hear panties hit the floor. "I'll take a medium coffee to go. Black."
Not the sugar-and-cream type. No surprises there.
Barista Number One appeared to finally regain her senses. "Are you visiting someone at the college? I haven't seen you here before."
He handed her a crisp bill. "No, I live in Manhattan. I'm just here to pick up a girl."
Oh shit. He is Matt Donovan. That was Lucy's first thought. Her second? If her brother had condoned her spending hours in a confined space with this gorgeous man, he had quite a lot to learn about her.
"So ... are you picking up just any ol' girl or a specific one?"
Oh, for the love of double Spanx.
"Lucky girl." Barista Number Two with the gem! "She must be pretty special to drive all this way."
Matt took the paper coffee cup she offered. "Actually, from what I hear, she's kind of a nuisance."
Inside Lucy's head, the studio audience broke into a barrage of oh hell no's. She sat up so straight in her booth, she would have feared spinal damage if she could manage to think past her annoyance. A nuisance? On top of her double-ditching that day, the word was like water being poured over hot sauna rocks. They caused her anger to sizzle and snap dangerously. Somewhere underneath all that, a stab of hurt existed, but she didn't want to acknowledge that just yet.
He picked that moment to turn and lock eyes with her across the ten feet separating them. She had the satisfaction of watching his coffee cup pause halfway to his mouth before continuing its journey toward sculpted, masculine lips. Long-denied heat trickled through her, cutting right through her bout of self-pity. Desire. It had been a long time since she'd felt it. Perhaps that was why it tumbled through her midsection now after having been raveled up for years. As if he'd projected the image into her head, she saw those distracting lips feasting on her neck. A neck that had surely turned candy-apple red thanks to the direction of her thoughts.
Feeling this insistent attraction to her brother's best friend was inconvenient at best. Nor could she act on it. Based on what she'd been told about him, he was the honorable type. The voice of reason in their dude foursome. He would never make a move on "Brent's little sister." Especially when said little sister had been painted as nothing more than an irritating pest.
Unless, of course, he didn't know who he was putting the moves on.
Matt still watched her closely, but his expression showed no signs of recognition. Apparently Brent hadn't passed on a formal dossier complete with recent photos, because Matt was looking her over in a very on-limits kind of way. And boy oh boy, she liked it. Her nerve endings were tingling, nipples pebbling underneath her tank top in a way that had nothing to do with the air-conditioning. When his attention shifted to her bare legs visible beneath her cutoff shorts, warmth settled between her thighs. Was it her imagination or had he just growled at her?
Lying about her identity would be wrong. So very wrong. She couldn't do it. Could she? Her ethics professor would shit a brick. Not to mention, something told her this man wouldn't take kindly to being duped. Her only alternative was to stand up right now and introduce herself as Lucy Mason before it was too late. It would guarantee she arrived safely in Queens, untouched. Hot and bothered with no weapon to combat it, save the five-fingered one attached to her wrist. No closer to shedding the boredom wrought by the last two years.
It sounded horrible, but she was woman enough to admit that, on top of wanting this insanely hot man, her ego needed a little boost. She'd been dateless for too long, she'd been ditched by everyone, and now she'd been labeled a nuisance. Maybe just this once, she could get hers and say to hell with the consequences, the way she used to. The dormant daredevil inside her stretched and looked around sleepily.
Lucy pushed back her chair and stood. Pasting what she hoped was a flirtatious smile on her face, she walked toward Matt and extended her hand. "I couldn't help but overhear that you're looking for 39 Juniper."
He grunted into his coffee. Not exactly the reaction she'd been looking for. No matter, she'd just have to try again. After all, she hadn't gotten to be second place in every competition under the sun without learning a few tricks along the way. Garnering her courage, she ran a hand through her curls and cocked one hip. His teeth sank into his lower lip. There. Now she had his attention. "I'm Sasha, Lucy Mason's roommate. Looks like you're here to give me a ride."CHAPTER 2
Hop on, baby. I'll give you a fucking ride.
The thought blew swift and furious through Matt's consciousness before he banished it, locking it safely behind a steel-reinforced door. This girl, the one who stood in front of him looking like a virgin sacrifice sent to tempt his sanity, wouldn't last five minutes with him before she ran off screaming. He knew that, and yet he couldn't look away.
Her deliciously unpainted mouth moved and words came out, but it took his brain an extra second to catch on. One hell of a feat, since he prided himself on staying razor sharp at all times. His training had drilled the importance of being consistently alert into his head. His profession demanded it. Yet in under a minute, this girl had managed to test that will, effectively cutting off all blood flow to his brain and sending it straight to his groin.
Fuck, she'd made him hard. In public, no less. Before uttering a single word.
On some level, he resented that.
She had spoken, however, and was now looking at him awaiting a response. What had she said? Sasha. Wants a ride. Focus, Donovan. You're acting like one of your friends, drooling over some girl, when you know that shit isn't for you. Will never, ever, be for you.
Matt took a sip of his coffee to buy himself some time. Now he remembered why the name Sasha rang a bell. Lucy Mason's roommate. The roommate he'd agreed to share a vehicle with for the next couple hours on the drive back to New York City. Jesus. At least he'd have Brent's pesky sister riding shotgun, preventing him from doing something patently unwise. Like pulling over at the first opportunity and divesting this girl of her frayed jean shorts in his backseat.
Get a handle on it. Now. Before you can't.
Reluctantly, he dragged his gaze away from the embodiment of temptation before him and skimmed a glance over the coffee shop, looking for an entirely different girl. One resembling a linebacker. With a brother the size of a small mountain, Lucy couldn't be too far behind. No luck. As far as he could tell, there wasn't a single fart joke- –telling Brent look-alike among this crowd. Although to be fair, he didn't have a clue what Lucy looked like, nor had he had time to find out. Driving to Syracuse had been a last-minute favor to his friend, one he'd grudgingly accepted under threat of being forced to endure an afternoon of wedding plan details. He hadn't been able to get behind the wheel fast enough.
"She's not coming," said the temptation, her voice low and smoky. "Lucy, that is."
Excerpted from Staking His Claim by Tessa Bailey, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2014 Tessa Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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