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The sultry afternoon air stifled busy downtown St. Louis in a net of oppressive heat. Above lightning flashed amid billowing pewter-colored clouds. Suddenly there was a rumbled basso warning, and gusts of wind began whistling through the streets.
Hesitating at the curb to pull his soft-brimmed hat more securely over his ebony curls, a tall, bearded man glanced from side to side then strode hurriedly across the street and slipped inside his late-model white sedan. He closed the door quickly and sighed as the first large raindrops splattered against the windshield.
"This is going to be a real gully-washer," he observed, using a term from his rural Oklahoma youth. Resigned to waiting out the storm, he tossed his rakish hat into the back-seat on top of his leather briefcase and loosened his silk tie. Then, settling himself in the seat, he smoothed the knife-sharp creases in his beige slacks, simultaneously flicking a bit of lint from his black hand tailored sport coat. His leashed energy found an outlet in the tapping of one pointed toe of his cowboy boots, the only external clue to his heritage. He absentmindedly massaged his cheeks and chin, fingering the sable soft beard, not yet comfortable with the disguise he'd been forced to assume in order to camouflage his internationally recognizable face.
Relieved that he'd made it to his car before the storm broke, he watched business people and shoppers scurry for cover. To his right, through the rain-spattered passenger window, he could barely make out the silhouette of a slim woman standing on the far side of the small city park. Moving decisively, she took off her shoes andstuffed them into her briefcase. Then, glancing in his direction, she lifted her jacket over her head and bent her body against the driving rain, jumping puddles and avoiding the broken twigs that skittered along the sidewalk.
She bore down on the man's car, keys ready in her fist. It was obvious she was running toward the wrong automobile, but he hadn't the heart to ignore her plight. He leaned over and unlocked the passenger door seconds before she jammed the key into the lock and jerked it open. Her soaked blue jacket clung to her shoulders and concealed her head as she threw herself into the seat.
"Great! This is just great! Do a friend a favor and this is how I'm repaid." Her muttered tirade brought a grin to the man's lips. Sparks of amusement fit his dark eyes when he realized she didn't know she had company.
She hiked her damp skirt high above her knees and dropped her keys in her pocket before she pushed her briefcase to the floor between her long legs. "Oh, look at my ruined stockings!" She moaned, and the man beside her was quick to oblige, noting the lovely curve of calf and thigh instead of the stockings. His dark eyes danced in silent appreciation.
"Well, it was no contest between a three-dollar pair of stockings and a hundred-dollar pair of shoes," she said disconsolately. Her wet fingers fumbled with the briefcase latch and plunged inside to retrieve her prized shoes. She refastened the lock and straightened her shoulders, slipping the soggy coat from her head to reveal a winsome profile and a bedraggled mass of wild strawberry-blond curls.
It was then that the woman turned her head and discovered his dark questioning stare. There was no fear in her wide blue eyes, but she did gulp once to regain composure as she glanced quickly at the interior of the car. Then she unobtrusively pulled her skirt back down to her knees. "I don't suppose it would do one bit of good to ask you what you're doing in my car?" Her voice had a breathy, sweet quality that affected the man's entire nervous system.
"I think your car might be the one parked three ahead of mine." He chuckled when she shifted her gaze along the curb, then closed her blue eyes in embarrassment.
"My mistake, I'm afraid."
"My good luck," he countered in a quiet, assured tone. "It might very well be my chance of a lifetime."
The woman, accustomed to such outrageous come on's--though she had to admit, this man's confident demeanor was something she hadn't encountered before--tipped her head to one side and gave him a long measuring look. Something about him was vaguely familiar. She shrugged. He didn't act like a masher, she decided. And certainly she wasn't going to leave the dry confines of his car until the storm blew over--or until she was forced to do so! Giving him a smile that lit up her heart-shaped face and caused him to draw in his breath, she leaned closer. "Have we met somewhere before?" she asked, examining his features.
His laugh sent a shower of sparks through her system, warming her chilled body with its charm. "I think that should be my line, don't you?"
She straightened her tingling spine. "It's a liberated world," she answered staunchly. His twinkling eyes told her they could debate that issue all night. All night? Dropping her gaze to his neatly trimmed black mustache and beard, she decided to try again. "Honestly, you do look familiar. I remember your eyes ... and your black curly hair." She frowned in frustration. "But I don't recall you with a beard. Would you mind telling me your name?"
"Not if you'll promise to do the same." Even if she knew his name, she wouldn't be able to guess his other identity. The beard had changed his appearance dramatically. This little lady was an enigma, he decided, his curiosity aroused. Tenacious in a polite sort of way. Attractive, though she was drenched to the skin. With an alluring figure, he thought, remembering his glimpse of her long legs. His eyes lowered to her rounded breasts, which were outlined beneath the damp silk of her blouse. His gaze narrowed momentarily when he noted with rising interest how her nipples peaked against the thin fabric. It was a delightful picture, particularly when she began to fumble with her jacket.
She searched the jacket pocket, drew out a damp, warped business card and handed it to him. "Juliet McLane. Music educator and consultant." She watched as he reached into the inside pocket of his impeccably styled jacket and removed a soft leather case. With tapered tanned fingers he withdrew a crisp white card and handed it to her. She noted his manicured square nails. This was not a ?local," Juliet decided silently. He was put together like a New York fashion plate!
"Hooker Jablonski. Writer. Documentary films."
Juliet faked a cough to cover her laugh when she heard his name, but Hooker saw right through her subterfuge. He raised a dark brow. "You were expecting maybe Errol Flynn?"
She laughed nervously and focused her eyes on his card, too mortified to meet his direct gaze. "It certainly would fit the image," she admitted.
One cool fingertip lifted her pointed chin, and her breath caught at the intense heat in his eyes. "Oh, I can assure you, Ms. McLane, I live up to my name." His warm breath washed over her skin, and she trembled when her mind conjured a scenario of ladies of the night. Gigolos. And secret meetings. "I was all-American in basketball at Tulsa State." Her relieved laughter mingled with his perceptive chuckle. He'd known what she was thinking.
"I owe you an apology. Mr. Jablonski." She grinned sheepishly. "Your first name just took me by surprise."
Hooker continued to caress her cheek, fascinated by its satiny smoothness, its heated blush of color. "Think nothing of it. Juliet. I've always had a lot of fun with my nickname."
His stroking fingers quieted her discomfort over the faux pas, yet they were playing havoc with another part of her system. Who was this bearded man? she wondered. His name was another clue, she thought. It, too, sounded familiar, but she couldn't quite put all the pieces together. "Is your given name so terrible?" Unaccountably she found herself eager to know more about this attractive man with the devastating smile.
He lifted a sculptured brow, and his lips curved into the sexiest smile Juliet had ever seen. "It's certainly not a sweet name like yours," he countered. "Let's just say only my wife, my parents, and my best friend will ever know what it is."
Juliet tried to pull her face from his tender hold as she blurted a question she would have given anything to retrieve. "Your wife?" She should have known. Unless they were professional bachelors, all the really breathtaking male specimens were taken-and she could well imagine the gorgeous woman Hooker would have chosen for his mate. She renewed her efforts to ease from his grasp, knowing she should leave now, rain or no rain, but he continued to hold her with velvet fingers.
His smooth thumb began a gentle assault upon her lower lip as he explored its fullness. "I've never had a wife," he whispered. The small fire inside Juliet began to build and crackle in response to his words while the unrelenting storm formed a barrier to the world.
The flame inside Juliet seemed to catch fire in Hooker's ebony eyes as he gazed at her sensual mouth. She knew he was going to kiss her if she didn't put a stop to it. Drawing on all the ?nice girl? training stuffed into her brain by one very forthright mother, she found the strength to pull away and take up the conversation again.
"Have you always been a writer?"
She's not only ethical, she's careful, he decided, straightening up. "All my life ... but it's a new field for me professionally."
"Then what did you do before?" She began to examine his features again, looking for a clue, feeling her eyes drawn again and again to his intense gaze. "This is driving me crazy. Hooker. Help me out." She continued her searching gaze. "It's your eyes!" she declared positively. "I always remember people's eyes, and yours are more expressive than most." When he only grinned, she huffed in exasperation. "Well! Are you going to tell me or not?"
He was enjoying her predicament and did love practical jokes, but he knew he couldn't string her along much longer. Yet strange though it seemed, he wanted her to know his full identity. When he'd decided to tell her his name, somehow he'd sensed his secret would be safe with Juliet. "I'll give you a hint." He leaned toward her and began to gather her in his arms.
Alarmed, Juliet stiffened. "Hey, now, wait just a minute!"
Raising that wonderful brow again, he gave her a baleful look. "I wasn't planning to ravish you, Juliet." Not yet! He had a difficult time keeping the humor from his voice and subduing the teasing light in his veiled gaze. "What kind of a man do you think I am?"
"How should I know? I just met you."
"But you think you know me," he countered. "So trust me." He eased her back into his arms and murmured against the damp ringlets at her ear. "Now just relax and let your senses take over. You're experiencing my little hint right now."
Although she remained quiet within his embrace, her face nestled against his soft beard and the warmth of his neck, her mind was working frantically. Once again she examined the clues, trying to decipher the key to Hooker's identity.