Read an Excerpt
Styled in 1930s décor, the Jazz House was an inconspicuous place, classy and understated, tucked into a quiet corner of Chicago's downtown Streeterville neighborhood. Smoky melodies, thick with heartbreak and yearning, drifted through the dark club, curling around hushed conversations and seeping beneath the tensions of the day.
Seated toward the back of the high-polish bar, Calista McGovern swirled rough chunks of ice in her gin and tonic, savoring the pull of blue notes at her soul. This was a place she could get used to.
That was it would be, if the next two months weren't committed to an assignment that left little chance of Cali seeing the light of day—or even the dark of night for that matter—before it ended. She was Project Manager for the multibillion-dollar retail conglomerate MetroTrek, and her stint in the Windy City guaranteed long hours under the steady hum of fluorescent lights, broken only by meals on the run and the necessity to sleep.
Chicago was about work. It was a stepping stone to the new London expansion position her New York-based boss, Amanda Martin, had all but promised her—if she could nail the Chicago job first. It was the opportunity Cali had been waiting for.
Her plane had touched down on the O'Hare tarmac three hours before. She would have been elbow-deep in work already if it hadn't been for Amanda's insistence that she spend her first night in Chicago out on the town. And, more specifically, at this club.
As a rule, Cali wasn't much of a suck-up, but with the London position hovering on the horizon—the restoration of a career she'd nearly destroyed all but complete—catering to her boss's whims seemed a reasonable accommodation.
Amanda had discovered the club through her little sister's husband, Jackson, last time she'd been home for a visit, and hadn't stopped talking about it since. Normally mention of anything associated with the beloved brother-in-law earned a mental eye-roll from Cali. As Amanda told it—often in excruciating detail—Jackson could do no wrong. As Cali heard it, Amanda harbored some deep-seated crush on the guy, and any opinion even remotely tied to him should be taken with a grain of salt.
Tonight, however, Cali had to give the man credit. The Jazz House was perfect, with precisely the kind of subdued atmosphere she appreciated. Or at least it was until a guy looking to be in his mid-forties pushed onto an empty stool beside her and let out a labored breath as he rubbed a bloodshot eye with the back of his thumb.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?"
Jake Tyler rested one shoulder against the wall, his attention locked on the woman at the bar. From the minute he'd seen her shake that spill of sexy red-brown curls across her shoulders he'd been struck immobile. He'd watched her face relax and her lips curve as she listened to the music, enjoyed the way her skirt rode over her thigh as she crossed her long, smooth legs, and wondered what it would be like to touch her. Take her home and lose himself in her body.
But picking up company wasn't part of the plan. He'd come to unwind, as he often did after too many hours in the operating room. To let the smooth jazz ease the strain in his muscles and his mind before heading home to get some much needed sleep.
So he'd tried to focus on the music instead of the pretty girl at the bar, and he'ddone an almost passable job of it—rightup to when the chump running on one drink too many moved in.
Now the woman with the siren hair and soft smile was unsuccessfully trying to brush off the persistent nuisance who wanted to play the "don't I know you from somewhere" game.
It was a cheap line, so overdone it should be stricken from the pick-up playbook forever. But some guys never learned. And some women deserved a break. Which was why, when the guy moved in again, Jake pushed off the wall and crossed to the bar.
A thick cloud of cologne, laced with sweat and whiskey, wafted around her as the man hunched closer. Cali set her glass down and reached for her purse.
This stank. The music was fantastic, but she couldn't shake her barfly, which meant it was time to leave.
"You're alone." The slurred voice dropped meaningfully. "I'm alone—"
"Hey, babe." A rich, deep baritone cut in, sliding like a smooth caress down her spine, saving her from whatever promise or threat of mutual satisfaction Whiskey Breath was selling. The body that issued it dropped into the open seat on her left, and when his warm, wide hand settled over hers she jumped, awareness churning within her. "Hope I didn't keep you waiting too long. Work ran late."
"What—?" was all she managed, before her first look at the stranger beside her stole her breath. Piercing blue eyes pinned her to her spot, while a smile as sexy as sin held her rapt.
Next to this guy, Mr. Whiskey was nothing. She should push away from the bar, grab her clutch and leave without looking back.
That was what she should do.
Sensual lips, full and wide, cocked up to one side, and before she'd even thought, the words left her lips. "Hi… babe."
Her gaze dragged over the near-hypnotic proportions of her barside savior, as he followed the other man's grudging retreat with his eyes. He was huge, easily six-four, built with a tapered physique that left her mouth watering and the rest of her body on high alert. The thin black knit of his summer-weight V-neck clung, emphasizing his broad shoulders, defined pecs and flat abs. This was the kind of man she never let her herself notice, only this one….
Well, he was a modern-day knight in pricey denim, rescuing a damsel in distress from a whiskey-breathing barfly. He was her hero and, try as she might not to notice, she wasn't dead.
He shot her a disarming smile. "Sorry about the 'babe' business, but it had the necessary possessive ring to it, don't you think?"
He had an incredible voice.
Fighting the urge to titter with nervous laughter, she answered, "Very effective. Thank you." She cleared her throat, wishing her head would clear as well. She was a grown woman, and this wasn't the first attractive man who'd ever spoken to her—though he was easily the most attractive. The lean, chiseled lines of his cheekbones and the ruthless cut of his jaw and nose were masculine, sexy. Blending outdoor sportsman and tuxedo-fine in seamless perfection. The thick silk of his dark hair, clipped short on the sides and long enough to wave in rumpled disarray on top, had her fingers itching to tangle in it.
He angled closer, an alluring violation of her personal space, and offered his hand with a gruff introduction. "Jake Tyler."
"Cali—but, umm, I should get going."
He turned to face her, those blue eyes filled with censure. "After I got rid of your friend? The least you can do to thank me is stay and listen to the music, like you were trying to do before he interrupted."
So he'd been watching her. Boy, she didn't want to know that. Didn't want to like it. Slanting a look his way, she tried to size up the threat he made.
He met her stare and held it for a beat. "You seemed to be enjoying the band." He shrugged and glanced over to where the bartender had set down his order.
The long muscles running the length of his spine, visible through the hug of his sweater, flexed and shifted as he rested one arm on the bar to reach for his drink.
"I like jazz. I like it when others like it, too. The guy seemed to be getting in the way, so I helped him out. That's all. You and I, we can just sit here and listen together. Ignore each other completely. In fact…" he leaned back slightly, eyes focused now on the front of the club "… I've forgotten about you already."
She stared, and then a ripple of amusement broke loose from the anxiety-tightened confines of her chest. His reverse psychology teasing should have sent her fleeing for the nearest cab, only it had sent butterflies flitting around her belly instead.
She cocked her brow at him, feigning surprise. "Are you still here?"
The low rumble of his answering laughter had a seductive quality she couldn't resist, and then she was laughing too, swearing to herself it was only a momentary indulgence.
"Fine," he drawled, luring her attention to the mischievous gleam in his eyes. "Since you're so desperately chatty, I'll talk to you."
A stuttering cough escaped her as she tried to muster any emotion other than delight. "I beg your pardon?"
The corner of his mouth turned up. "No need to beg. So, what do you think? Should we talk about work?"
He was good. Smooth. Exactly the kind of distraction she didn't need on the first day of the most important assignment since the reinvention of her career. She didn't have room in her life for a man. She should run, she thought, firmly planted in her spot.
But, she'd run every other time a man threw a decent line or a flashy smile her way over the last three years. She'd tolerated no distractions and it had worked. She'd gotten herself where she wanted to go.
Only tonight she didn't want to run.
Maybe it was the music, or the club, or the high she was riding being so close to her goal. Or maybe she just wanted to remember what it felt like to have a gorgeous man trying for her smile. After all, it wasn't as though this Jake Tyler was asking her to dump her career to be with him. He was just a sexy bit of sporting flirtation. Harmless. Fun. A guy she'd never see again and couldn't affect her future one iota.
But talking about work? No way. Work was all tied up, with her every hope, dream and ambition wrapped around it—and her biggest mistake behind it.
No. Her career was just for her. Much too intimate for sharing with a sporting flirtation.
Cali took a sip of her drink. Brushed at the drops of condensation with her thumb. "Let's skip work. I'll be up to my ears in it for the next few months. This is the last night of calm before I lose my life and identity to the job completely."
"Ah, you're a spy, then," he offered, with an understanding nod and a devastating grin. "Me too."
Two hours later Jake sat back, enjoying the full-bodied, free sound of Cali's laughter as her head tilted back, her eyes closed. It was a sound as enticing as any he'd ever heard, and he'd been working all evening to earn more of it. Now, as her laughter eased into a sigh, her smile became hesitant. She pushed a loose curl behind her ear and turned to him.
Damn, she was gorgeous.
He wanted her. And, with the way her heavy-lidded stare kept slipping to his mouth, she wanted him too.
Long, sooty lashes swept her cheekbones and then lifted as her green eyes sparkled under the glittering bar-lights. The errant curl fell forward again, and this time restraint was beyond him. Reaching out, Jake caught the silky strands between his fingers and tucked them gently behind her ear. The slight contact sent lust roiling through his system as a shudder racked Cali's form. The muscles along her throat moved up and down, and her teeth set into her lush bottom lip, driving the breath out of his lungs. She didn't know what she was doing to him. Or maybe she did, and that was okay too.
Her gaze flitted back to his, uncertain and suddenly wary.
Hell. What was he doing? He had no business putting a move on a woman like her. She was sweet and sexy and a little bit shy. She wasn't the kind of woman you picked up for a night, or even a week's worth of nights, which was about the extent of what a guy like him had to offer.
"Jake," she half whispered, her voice barely audible above the sultry jazz pouring over them. "I'm not— When we started talking you were so funny and charming…I just figured a little flirting might be fun. I didn't mean for it to go anywhere. But you're so easy to talk to and I got carried away." Her gaze shifted off to the corner. "I'm sorry, I don't— I don't really…."
Cali turned aside, though he'd already seen the pretty blush that broke out across her cheekbones. Crooking a finger beneath her chin, he drew her gaze back to his.
"Hey, don't apologize. I know how to enjoy good conversation and a little flirting without it having to go back to a bedroom." Getting shut down really shouldn't have felt like a relief, but the way their small talk had wound its way into something deeper, more meaningful….
He liked her. And that was the problem. Jake didn't do meaningful.
She peered up at him through those dark lashes and his head began to spin. "It's just that maybe—"
A persistent vibration at his hip drew his attention from the woman in front of him to matters of life and death. "Hold that thought." With a reluctant shake of his head he pulled the phone from his pocket. "I'm sorry. This is the hospital. I've got to call in and check on a patient. Give me five minutes?"
She nodded. "Of course."
Cali watched as Jake made his way toward the back hall of the club, where a sign for the restrooms hung above the arched doorway. She needed to get out of there. Like, an hour ago. Her own stupidity was beyond belief. If Jake's phone hadn't interrupted— She didn't want to think about the words that had nearly sprinted off the tip of her tongue. The invitation—agh!
This man was beautiful in a cut-from-granite, his-maker-must-have-been-an-artist kind of way, and his physique alone was screwing with her head. What had begun as sporting flirtation had spiraled completely out of control into something more compelling than she was prepared to defend herself against.
It must be some kind of pheromone thing.
It was the clean, spicy scent of him drugging her senses that had her thinking in bad pick-up lines about a man she shouldn't have looked twice at. Let alone fallen into deep, lengthy, satisfying conversation with.
Just her bad luck he was interesting too. Intelligent and sharp, funny and thoughtful. Captivating in both mind and body. Far more dangerous than she'd realized.
She pushed her glass back on the bar and, clutching her purse, stood up. If she were smart, she'd haul it out of the club and straight into a cab before Jake got back. But that kind of insulting behavior wasn't in her. She'd run to the Ladies' Room and when she returned she'd thank him for a wonderful evening and leave. No exchange of phone numbers. No plans. A clear-cut goodbye.