Read an Excerpt
Too Hot to Handle
By Aleah Barley, Ruth Homrighaus
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Aleah Barley
All rights reserved.
Jack Ogden unlocked the heavy-duty dead bolt on his apartment door and pressed his muscular shoulder against swollen wood, which stuck in the summer heat. The door opened with a sharp jerk that radiated down his arm.
It hurt. Everything hurt.
He was getting old. At thirty, he'd lost the ability to bounce back from a beating. Ten years earlier, he'd been a professional boxer, making a living getting punched in the face. Scraped knuckles and bruised skin. Now all it took was one bar fight to knock him flat on his ass.
He needed a cold beer, some hot food, and about two weeks in bed.
As he stepped over the threshold, his gun slipped out of his shoulder holster into his right hand — the motion practiced, reflexive, an automatic response to some signal he couldn't place or interpret.
"This is the police," he called out, pushing the door closed behind him. "And I'm not in the mood."
Pounding music came up through the floor from the dance club below. Classic rock tonight. Friday. Darkness pooled at the doorway, but light shone at the far end of the hall. Someone was in his apartment. Someone who'd heard about his injury. If they thought entering the apartment while he was injured would save them from his wrath, they were about to find out just how wrong they'd been.
Moving fast, he slipped down the length of the hallway. Common sense said he should wait outside and call for backup, but he'd left common sense behind him an hour ago when he'd checked out of the hospital against his doctors' advice. If he called for backup, he'd spend the next six hours listening to his commanding officer chew his head off for leaving the hospital without permission. Then someone would call his sister.
He'd rather be dead.
Jack kept moving, letting a surge of adrenaline carry his bruised body into the apartment's combination living room and kitchen, where the intruder had turned on a light. His eyes swept the room, taking in the familiar blue couch, the big picture windows, the battered kitchen table, and the open freezer door.
His gaze stopped on the panties. They were blue cotton embroidered with shiny circles, and they were wrapped around the heart-shaped ass of a woman bending down to look in his side-by- side freezer.
He'd always been a breast man, but there was something about those multicolored polka dots that made him think he'd been neglecting a vital portion of the female anatomy. Her legs were good, too — long and muscular, just the way he liked them.
She had bare feet. The sight made his breath catch in his throat. Bare feet were for the young and innocent. He really hoped she wasn't planning to kill him.
"Put your hands up."
The woman stood, but she didn't turn around. Her white cotton T-shirt dropped down to skim across those polka dots.
Not polka dots. Lollipops. His heart slammed against his rib cage. Whether this was a reaction to the adrenaline still racing through his veins or the lust washing over him in waves, he couldn't say.
"Where's your ice cream?" she asked.
The question was simple, direct, and completely disingenuous. He wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing in his apartment, but when he opened his mouth, different words came out. "I don't have any ice cream."
"What kind of a man doesn't have ice cream?" She closed the freezer door and reached up to snag the box of cookies Jack kept on top of his refrigerator. "If I gain a million pounds, it's your fault."
That didn't make any sense. The blood loss was obviously affecting his mind. "Cookies make you gain weight, but ice cream doesn't?"
"Ice cream is cold. Your body burns calories to heat it up."
"That's insane." Maybe the blood loss was affecting her mind.
Jack stared at the woman's back. She probably wouldn't be talking about ice cream if she were planning to kill him. Whoever she was.
He took a few steps forward and set the gun down on the table between them. There was something about her. Standing upright, she was a slightly built thing, much shorter than his solid six foot two. And her hair ... a glistening reddish-gold that shone in the flickering light from the street.
Jack knew that hair. It was bright, fiery, but cool to the touch. Always flying everywhere, getting in the way, and then she'd let out a soft sigh before putting it up in a loose ponytail.
When she didn't correct him, he let out a long breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. The woman was all kinds of trouble, but she wasn't a killer. He'd seen her arrest record. Hell, he'd added to it.
"Honey Moore, shouldn't you be in jail?"
A sharp laugh. "Time off for bad behavior." She turned around to face him straight on. Wide-set emerald eyes and rosy, bee-stung lips. He remembered those lips, soft and luscious. Permanently pursed, like she was waiting for a kiss. They tasted like cherry cola — or they had the last time he'd kissed her. Cherry cola and fresh-cut fries from the concession stand at the drive-in movie theater.
He'd been sixteen years old, and she'd laughed about it afterward like kissing him was the funniest thing in the world. That night, they'd been two dumb kids who'd snuck in to watch the latest spy thriller. He couldn't remember what the movie had been, but her hair had smelled like oranges, and her sweater had been soft to the touch.
Honey leaned against the wall, snagging a cookie from the box and devouring it in two neat bites. "Want one?" Her pose against the wall made her back arch and her plump, firm breasts strain against the plain white T-shirt. He wondered if she knew what she was doing.
If he were feeling better, he'd take the time to think about that. To wonder what her end game was. At the moment, he just wanted her gone.
Downstairs, the music stopped. The DJ introduced a new song. Jack couldn't understand what the man was saying, but he recognized the opening chords. Bruce Springsteen. The song took him back to late summer evenings spent listening to music down by the lake, blasting boom box speakers until the neighbors complained. Guns for hire. Dancing in the dark.
Jack swayed. With the adrenaline rush dying down, the pain was coming back. He'd be better off if Honey killed him. Then he wouldn't have to feel the bruises developing all over his body. The doctor who'd stitched him up had told him he didn't need a cast, but he definitely shouldn't be carrying heavy weights with a sprained wrist. Did a gun count as a heavy weight?
He took a deep breath, wincing when the force of air in his lungs made his chest tighten. "Breaking and entering. I could arrest you. Again."
"Go ahead. Grand theft cookie." She took another bite. "That's a career-making bust."
"Sweetheart, I already have a career. I'm a decorated officer. Any more promotions, and I have to start doing fancy paperwork." He leaned forward, bracing himself against the kitchen table to keep from toppling over. "Arresting you again would be fun."
Honey Moore. The youngest in a long line of petty criminals, experts at boosting cars and causing riots in confined spaces. Her cousin made book. Her only uncle who wasn't in jail or on the run was trying to make a legitimate go of things with a brewery somewhere off Valley Vista.
It had been years since he and Honey had talked, but he couldn't imagine much had changed in her life. Once a thug, always a thug.
"I've got cause," he added. "I don't remember giving you a spare key."
Honey snorted. "Spare keys are for little girls."
"You want to tell me how you got in here?"
Bold and brassy — that was Honey. She'd always been too loud, too headstrong, and too damn wild. A rough-and-tumble kid who'd grown up in one of the worst parts of Los Angeles, Honey had transferred to Black Palm Park Academy for high school. She'd been a scholarship student with a chip on her shoulder and too much to prove, and he'd been the reigning teen king of Black Palm Park, an exclusive Malibu enclave built around a country club and a private school.
They'd dated for a week and a half before she'd let him kiss her on the mouth. A real kiss, with tongue and hands tugging hurriedly at her sweater. He must have done something wrong, though, because the next morning at school, she'd told him to go to hell.
After that, things had gone south fast. They'd fought like cats and dogs. He'd called her a name. She'd retaliated with a well- placed quip. A few practical jokes, and someone had ended up with their hair dyed electric blue. It might have been him.
She'd always known what to say to twist the knife in his side, and he could never retaliate. Not when he was supposed to be the good one, the responsible one.
"You're not looking so good, Jack." Honey took one step forward, then another. She moved around the table, hips swinging, until she was standing less than a foot away. The only thing separating them was the box of cookies. Four inches of cardboard that could be crushed by one small step forward.
Reaching up, she rested her hand lightly on his cheek. Her fingers were cool from rifling through his freezer. When she spoke, he could feel her breath hot against his skin. "What happened to your face?"
It had been a long time since he'd been so close to a woman. For all the complex emotions she brought bubbling to the surface, Honey was warm, soft, and sexy. Her proximity made him dizzy.
He wasn't sixteen years old anymore. His boyish charms had been replaced with hard-won experience. Women liked him. If he kissed Honey again, she wouldn't be laughing. There wouldn't be enough air left in her to laugh.
"I ran into a door."
"A door?" Her tone was dry, incredulous.
"Yeah, my sister's ex-door and all his little door friends." He didn't want to think about Carlos or Jessica. He was too busy thinking about the way Honey's perky breasts were moving unbound under her plain white T-shirt. Too busy trying to figure out how much it would hurt to run his hands over her breasts, to kiss the soft curve of her neck, to have her pressed eagerly against him.
It would probably be worth it.
"Can I have one of those cookies?" Jack didn't wait for an answer. They were his cookies in his house. He reached down, plucking a cookie from the box between them. Another inch, and they'd be touching. Closer than that, and they'd be kissing.
Kissing Honey Moore. What was he thinking? The woman was definitely up to something. The few times they'd seen each other since high school, their relationship had run hot and cold. Sometimes, she'd been friendly — sweet, even — and sometimes she'd been vicious.
Arresting her at her cousin's wedding had probably been a mistake, but she shouldn't have hot-wired his patrol car to make a beer run.
Now, here she was. Acting like they were old friends.
"What do you want from me?"
"You've got a mighty high opinion of yourself," Honey said. "I don't want anything from you."
For a moment they stood there, face to face. Held in place by some force he didn't dare recognize. It was a competition, one he'd fight to the death before acknowledging.
Honey blinked first. Two steps backward, and she knocked into a tall kitchen stool. She sat down hard, the awkward motion serving to acknowledge what he already knew. She'd lost. Her body folded inward on itself until she was smaller than he remembered. Her tongue darted out, moistening her lips. Emitting a short sigh, she glanced away.
He polished off the cookie, then cleared his throat, wincing as the action made his head spin. He wasn't up for this.
Hell, he wasn't up for anything.
He should be in a nice comfy bed with a fluffy pillow, satin sheets, and a wooden top. Nail the cover down, stick a giant rock on top, and throw a party. He was done. Finished. A dead man walking.
"What the hell are you doing here?" A rude question — at least, by his mother's standards — but Jack didn't care. TTher as no logical reason for Honey Moore to be in his apartment, drawing him closer with every flutter of long lashes closing over green eyes, every breath expelled between raspberry lips.
A flip of Honey's hair, a bitter laugh. "Someone burned my house down." The statement was calm, quiet.
He didn't believe it for a minute.
After a long pause, she said, "Someone was chasing me. I couldn't think of any other place to go." Her eyes were bright, her jaw clenched. Defiant. She was waiting for him to tell her to leave.
Jack's hands clenched into fists while he considered his options. Tossing her out on her ass was tempting, very tempting. He didn't want to fight over a story as fake as a three-dollar bill. Not tonight. He didn't have the energy. "You know, I've always liked you — "
"'Liked' might not be the right word. 'Tolerated.'" He let out a long breath, blowing air over the top of his lip. "I tolerated your pranks. I tolerated the way you toyed with me. Teased me. I put up with all of you, right up until the minute you went too far and decided that my police car was a toy —"
"Do you have a point?"
"I'd be happy to see you under normal circumstances," Jack said. "But not tonight." Not with a split lip, a stitched-up gash in the middle of his chest, and bruised ribs. Bruised everything. "Why did you come here?"
"Why not?" A shrug. "I can go if you want, but I'd like to take a shower first."
A shower. Jack almost laughed. Nothing in his life was that simple. She was keeping something from him, but that was nothing new.
Part of him wanted to forget the bruises, to push, to interrogate her until she broke down and told him what was really going on.
Mostly, he didn't care. He was a man. She was a woman. Damaged or whole, he wanted to wrap his arms around her and take her to bed.
But growing up in Black Palm Park, the oldest son of a family that had stood in the political spotlight for generations, Jack had learned how to be a gentleman. His mother had taught him to be loyal, honest, and true. To never take advantage of a woman. Hitting on Honey Moore while she was in his kitchen, confused and vulnerable, wearing only a borrowed shirt and a pair of panties with lollipops on them, would be taking advantage.
"Make yourself at home." The words were quiet, earnest, and they left him drained, incapable of getting to bed. It took everything he had to keep himself upright until she retreated to the bathroom, her hips swaying back and forth tantalizingly underneath the white T-shirt.
He stumbled forward, collapsing onto the couch.
For a moment, Bruce Springsteen's voice was overshadowed by the shuddering of old pipes being forced into service. Then the song was back, the dull pounding of its beat slowing down before another lyric started up. Had the conversation only taken a few minutes? It had felt like an eternity.
What a night. What a weekend — and it would only get worse. His sister was going to tear him apart when she found out he'd gotten in a bar fight with her cheating asshole of an ex. He didn't regret it, though. Carlos was a schmuck.
His boss would probably help Jessica with the beat down. LAPD detectives were not supposed to go around getting in fights. Especially not with rich, powerful men like Carlos who had the governor's private number on speed dial.
Jack didn't care about politics. All he wanted was to be a cop. A good cop.
But six months earlier, he'd been part of a team chasing down a child killer in Brentwood. They'd found the man covered in the blood of his victims. By the time the killer arrived at Central Booking, he'd also been covered in bruises.
Jack didn't know who'd done it, and he didn't much care. The fact was Internal Affairs had a file on him now. One more incident and the Rat Squad would be up his butt with a microscope. They'd look at every arrest he'd ever made, every shooting he'd ever been in, and while they were at it, they'd probably suspend him.
He couldn't imagine anything worse.
His sister and the brass were problems that he'd have to deal with in the morning. He had something more important to think about. Honey Moore was in his shower, warm water pounding over her bare skin.
Standing there in his antique bathtub, she'd have to choose between getting out of the shower to retrieve a washcloth from the closet in the hall or using the bar of soap as it was. He hoped she used the bar. He liked the thought of the hard piece of soap making her body slippery, coating her breasts with white residue before she moved it down across her belly. Would she pause for a second, feeling the pressure of the soap and her own hand between her thighs? Maybe even thinking about him for a long moment before moving on?
A bolt of lust made his hands shake. He lifted his legs up onto the overstuffed couch. One ankle banged against the couch arm, and he winced in pain.
The noise of the shower filled his head. The sound was soothing, like one of those white noise machines that helps people sleep. Jack could use some sleep. Anything to keep his mind off Honey. But it was a lot more pleasurable to think about Honey ...
His eyes slowly flickered closed, and he fell into unconsciousness.CHAPTER 2
Honey Moore woke with pounding in her head and a curse on her lips.
"Damn it all to hell."
At eighteen, she'd sworn on a stack of bibles she was done lusting after Jack Ogden. It hadn't been easy getting over him. The man was tall, dark, and handsome, with a soft laugh that could light her blood on fire. He wore combed cotton T-shirts that stretched tight across his broad shoulders, blue jeans that had gone threadbare at the knees, and an occasional sweet smile that melted her insides.
Excerpted from Too Hot to Handle by Aleah Barley, Ruth Homrighaus. Copyright © 2012 Aleah Barley. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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