Read an Excerpt
By Devyn Quinn Jodi Lynn Copeland Anya Howard
Copyright © 2009
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One Nikki drifted back to consciousness.
She kept her eyes closed as familiar sensations seeped into her fuzzy brain. An ocean of cool softness cocooned her, the luxurious slide of silk on bare flesh. The support beneath her body bespoke of a mattress cradling her outstretched limbs. The soft pillow beneath her head invited her to slip back into the embrace of gentle slumber.
Close to wandering back into peaceful darkness, Nikki felt a hard male body settle next to hers. Without thinking, she stretched languorously against the solid mass of what felt like pure muscle. A firm hand settled on her breast, teasing fingers slowly circling the hard bud of her nipple. Warm lips descended to explore the soft hollow between her neck and shoulder. The nuzzling felt wickedly good. Her heart skipped a beat inside her chest; a warm ribbon of need coiled around her. A low moan slipped from her throat.
Smiling, Nikki rolled into her lover's embrace. Half on top of him, her breasts lightly brushed his chest, her legs tangling through the sheets with his. Big hands cupped her ass, settling her comfortably against narrow hips wielding a nice, hard cock.
She didn't open her eyes, wanting to enjoy the sensations just a minute longer. Mmm. What a way to wake up. How great was that sensation?
"God, Sammy," she breathed, "you wouldn't believe the dream I had." Her skin was already sweaty. The kind of sweat generated from having a naked man cuddling you after sweaty sex.
Strong fingers skimmed through her long hair, twisting, holding, tightening. Teeth nipped at her neck, pinching the soft skin of her throat. "Oh, but I do know," a softly accented voice replied. "I know everything about you, darling Nikki."
The voice was male, definitely.
But not Sammy's.
Eyes opening, a series of strange impressions assailed Nikki's senses. Dismay flooded through her. The man lying beneath her was a stranger. He wasn't naked either, though he was held fast under her in the most intimate of ways.
Nikki recoiled violently. One hand fumbling toward her face, she closed her eyes and rubbed them hard. "This isn't real," she gasped. What she was seeing couldn't have any basis in reality. She'd never seen this man before and certainly hadn't ever been in bed with him. It had to be a dream.
A really, really far-out dream.
The male voice under her said, "But it is real, Nikki."
She ignored him. "No, it's not."
A warm hand slid over her hip, traveling up her side to find her breast. "I'm definitely not your imagination either." Thumb and forefinger rolled her nipple in a most enticing way. "You have the most amazing breasts, my dear. Firm and round like peaches. I really must get my lips on them soon."
A blatantly sexual shock tore right through her gut. Nikki definitely couldn't ignore that. Her breath hissed past her lips in a short burst as her body responded with a powerful surge of red-hot lust. Memory of the cock she'd felt pressing against her came right back into her mind. A small trickle of moisture seeped between her thighs. Her body unquestionably had ideas of its own.
She looked down at the stranger. A thick mane of messy black hair haloed his head, curling just enough to give the unkempt mass charm. Arched brows ruled over a gaze of unusual intensity. His eyes were a coppery green shade, like brand-new pennies surrounded by freshly cut summer grass. The mix was so unusual that his eye color just had to be fake.
Two words instantly came to mind: breathtaking and gorgeous.
Nikki blinked in disbelief. Being in bed with the best looking man she'd ever seen in her entire life wasn't a bad way to wake up, especially when he'd been in the process of making sensual love to her.
There was just one problem: She didn't know him, and she didn't know where she was. A search of her mind revealed a big black hole in the center, as if every memory of the recent past had been vacuumed up.
For the first time, she realized she was naked save for the white sheet tangled around her hips. Though a little belated in coming, she demurely crossed her hands over her bare breasts. The feeling that he knew everything about her and that she knew nothing about him was more than a bit frightening. He seemed perfectly comfortable to have her in his bed, and perfectly willing to take advantage of the fact.
"Who are you?" she asked, very confused. She recognized nothing around her. It all felt so alien, as though she'd been shot into outer space and landed on another planet. Trouble was, she didn't recall signing up for the trip and couldn't quite remember what had happened before liftoff. Some mind-bendingly radical thing had occurred, something she really needed to remember.
Her seducer's enchanting gaze skimmed her face. "Ah, a lady who wants a proper introduction, I see."
His mouth wasn't more than a foot away from hers. A thrill of anticipation raced up Nikki's spine. His lips were so sensuously enticing that he had to be a terrific kisser. Somehow she just knew it.
She drew back from the temptation. Moving off him, she tucked the sheet around her body. "It would help knowing who's pawing all over me."
The flash of white teeth revealed a charming dimple on one side of his mouth. "I wasn't pawing you, my dear. I was merely attempting to make you more comfortable."
Nikki narrowed her eyes. "Comfortable, my ass," she snorted. "You were taking advantage of a naked, sleeping woman." Lust surged through her again. Somehow the idea wasn't enough to douse the sparks of sexual appetite he'd ignited. In fact, it did just the opposite. Waitressing in bars inevitably led to a few one-night stands. This wasn't exactly the first time she'd awakened beside a nameless stranger.
An unblinking kaleidoscope gaze met hers. "So I was." He hesitated a beat. "If you wanted to whip me for it, I would let you." His deep voice vibrated with innuendo.
Handsome and kinky. Hmm. Not a bad combination at all.
Arousal shimmied through her body all over again. Nikki glanced at him warily, tempted to play. First, she'd like to know who the hell he was. Knowing where she was might help too.
"Let's take things one at a time," she said. "I like to know who I'm abusing."
A scowl crossed his face. "If you insist."
Nikki smiled right back, refusing to be put off or intimidated. She'd played the games before, knew the rules well. If he expected to hit any more bases with her, he'd better start clarifying a few things. Identity, location, and an explanation of how she ended up naked in his bed would help a lot. If she liked the explanation, she might consider climbing back into that bed. If not, she wouldn't let the door hit her on the ass on the way out.
Assuming any of this was real to begin with.
"I do," she hammered in sweetly.
He hoisted himself into a sitting position and settled back against a pile of pillows. An immaculate white shirt hugged his shoulders and impossibly broad chest. Unbuttoned halfway, it revealed a nice slice of his chest. Perfectly creased slacks were well tailored to fit his narrow hips and long legs, and black leather boots covered his feet. He was the picture of casual elegance.
"Jackson." A curt nod followed. "Jackson Sullivan at your service, darling Nikki."
She frowned. "I guess I don't need to introduce myself since you already know my name."
Jackson's gaze raked over her like a laser beam, seeing all and missing nothing. Primal heat simmered behind his gaze. "I know all about you, Nikki Malone."
His blatant visual appraisal and statement sent an involuntary shiver racing across her bare skin. The delight burning in his eyes said he already knew her in the most intimate of ways. The way a man knew a woman he'd made love to.
Familiar warmth prickled the fine hairs at the back of Nikki's neck. In her fantasies, Jackson was the kind of man she'd always dreamed of having. No doubt about it. He was a gorgeous hunk of man. If she'd met him under any other circumstances, she'd be fantasizing how he would look naked....
Attempting to quell desire, she clenched her fists until her fingernails dug into the sheet, already too sheer for her comfort. "That's impossible," she said. "I've never met you before in my life."
He chuckled. "Well, you couldn't have met me before," he countered in a slow, exaggerated drawl. "Because only the dead can enter the seventh circle."
His words caught her like a dash of icy water to the face. She stared at him, startled by his statement. It took only seconds for the meaning of his words to sink in. For the first time she noticed that his skin was unusually pale, as if he'd never been exposed to a single ray of the glaring sun. Strangely, it did nothing to detract from his attractiveness. He possessed the kind of electrifying beauty and masculinity only a generous god could impart, an otherworldly quality that set him well above the plane of ordinary men.
A chill prickled the fine hairs at the back of Nikki's neck. Fear knotted her bowels, the knots growing painfully tighter. Jackson, as easy on the eyes as he was, must be crazy. There was no other believable explanation. Somehow she'd stumbled into the keep of a madman.
Nikki eased off the bed, moving slowly so as not to let on that he was scaring her shitless. "I think I need to get going."
Leaving definitely seemed to be a good idea. Go where, though? Save for the sheet, she didn't have on a single stitch of clothing. Still, she supposed she could make do given the emergency. Time to hotfoot it out of this bizarre place while the getting was good.
She glanced around, looking for the way out. The room with its huge four-poster bed, thick carpets, and elaborately masculine furnishings was swathed in the shadows cast by an illumination of no discernable or readily apparent source. Nevertheless, there was a door. And a door usually meant a way out.
Easily discerning her intent, Jackson's smile widened. "You can't."
She stilled. "Why not?"
He waved a casual hand. "Don't you still feel that bullet tearing up your guts?"
Wait a minute. That sounded eerily ... familiar.
A frightening and familiar panic filled her. For a moment, she just stared at him, legs threatening to collapse under her. Her mind warred with his words.
A bullet? In my guts?
Soupy images from the recent past swam in front of Nikki's wavering vision. She lowered her head, staring at her abdomen. There was no blood on the sheet, no wound that she could feel. Why would there be? How could there be?
And then it hit her.
Images of the Mexicans blasting Sammy to pieces suddenly flashed across her mind's screen. Two and two were coming together awfully fast, and she didn't like the equation. Strange as things were, they were beginning to make sense.
In a twisted and bizarre sort of way.
Her hand traveled to her mouth as she looked at the man who seemed to have hijacked all sense of reality and hidden it away from her. She choked down the rise of bile at the back of her throat. "Oh, God, no ..."
Jackson scowled under scrutiny. "God has nothing to do with this place." As he spoke, he reached over to the bedside table. Flicking open the lid of a silver box, he extracted a cigarette. The tip burst into flame seconds before it reached his lips. He took a quick drag, exhaling a white rush of smoke through flaring nostrils. "I quite assure you."
His tone wasn't reassuring. Neither was the fact that his cigarette was self-combustible.
Dumbfounded, Nikki stared at him. She desperately dug through the dark recesses of her mind. More had to be there. Any memory, however vague, would help. Then she saw her clothes draped across a chair. Something else too.
Sammy's bloodstained backpack.
Two words escaped her numb lips. "The money-"
Focusing on the object of her damnation, more ghostly images unspooled, playing across her skull like a film badly mauled by the projector. But there was enough left to tell the story. The plan gone so terribly awry. Tearing through the desert. The car, low on gas. The lights in the distance offering the hope she'd find help.
No. She shook her head against the thought. I'm not ... I can't be. Her brain refused to process the reality that loomed like a vulture perched on a rock searching the desert sands for carrion. Human flesh. Rotting human flesh.
"You're wrong," she said slowly. "Sammy died. Not me."
Jackson Sullivan slid off the bed. The man was a tower, all rippling muscle and sinew. Predatory heat driven by a visible edge of strength radiated off him in waves.
Nikki had to tip her head back to look into his eyes. Nearly six feet herself, she wasn't what anyone would consider fragile. She could knock back a drink or send a fist flying with the best of them. Jackson Sullivan not only made her look small, he made her feel small. The top of her head barely came to the level of his shoulder.
Nostrils flaring with annoyance, he flicked the ashes off his cigarette. They vanished before hitting the floor. "No, I'm quite sure it was you. You've kicked it. Bit the dust. Taken a dirt nap. Pushed up daisies. The list goes on endlessly."
Uh-huh. Nikki didn't think he was being very damn funny at all. She frowned fiercely. "No need to be an asshole about it, Jack."
He shrugged. "I'm not being an asshole, as you so crudely put it. I am just telling you the facts as they are. You're dead, babe. Get over it."
Nikki drew a deep breath and forcibly stopped herself from rolling her eyes at his elaborate theatrics. "Seems to me that crack you're smoking has gone to your head. I've heard of date-rape drugs. You might be a hallucination for all I know."
He stared at her, absorbing her declaration. The brutal knowledge of the insider permeated his gaze. "Hallucinations don't make you cream and moan like a bitch in heat. Wet dreams, yes. But this isn't a dream-and you know it."
A subtle tremor buzzed through Nikki and her body trembled visibly in reaction. She clearly remembered her desire for him, evidenced by the insistent throb between her thighs. Better not think of that.
Her grip on the sheet clutched around her breasts tightened. "But I don't feel dead," she pointed out reasonably. "In fact, I feel perfectly fine."
Jackson cocked a knowing brow. "That is one of the best benefits of death. All the sensations of living, and none of its nasty inconveniences." He spread his hands expansively. "What's not to like about the afterlife?"
Weird as the logic was, it made sense. However she'd made the change of location-whether by choice or not-she was here.
Nikki's tongue immediately lodged in her cheek. "So who are you?" She eyed him suggestively from head to foot, repeating the once-over he'd given her. Turnabout was fair play. "My reward for being a good girl?"
Jackson shook his head, sending a tumble of sexy dark curls into his eyes. "I'm your punishment for being a bad girl." Planting his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he ticked off his fingers. "Let me think. Of the capital vices that will get you sent here, you've already fallen to greed, envy"-with a knowing little grin, he wriggled all his fingers-"and lust. Well, I haven't got enough fingers to count the times you've spread your legs for a man." A knowing gleam lit his eyes. "Or should I make that last plural?"
Confronted with her sins, an uncomfortable sense of dismay filled her. True. True. And very, very true again.
Heat rose to her cheeks. "Like you weren't trying to cop a feel, you letch," she mumbled under her breath.
Jackson's hand flew to his heart. "Ah, you wound me. That viper's mouth of yours is very much alive, darling Nikki."
Patience snapped. "I'm not your 'darling.'" She drew a breath to steady herself. "So who do I have to screw to get out of this place?" She sniffed with disdain, adding in as a barbed aside, "You, I suppose."
Taking one final draw off his cigarette, he flicked it toward the fireplace dominating one wall. Cracking flames burst to life, devouring the butt. They vanished as quickly as they'd arrived, without a trace. "Nobody leaves hell, Nikki. Ever. Once you arrive, there is no going back."
Nikki blinked, startled by the supernatural display. The second one she'd witnessed but hadn't yet computed. Now she did and her chest tightened painfully. Hell? Oh, Lord. She'd apparently jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Literally. Panic clutched in the most unpleasant of ways.
Excerpted from Dangerous Ties by Devyn Quinn Jodi Lynn Copeland Anya Howard Copyright © 2009 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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