Read an Excerpt
Women are preprogrammed to respond to the alpha male in a sexual manner. They can't resist testosterone.
Mary Wickes watched the TV psychologist mouthing the words on the flat screen mounted overhead on the distant wall. Thank goodness for closed-captioning.
Noise in the bar had escalated in the last few minutes as the Friday after-work crowd entered, dusted with a skiff of snow and ready to brave what the newscast predicted would be a kick-ass storm. Might as well celebrate the coming blizzard with a shot of whiskey or a glass of wine.
"Women also look for protection from an alpha male and respond to him as they would have in the cave thousands of years ago," the captioning said on the screen. "Women are slaves to their biology."
"Bull," Mary said out loud, then glanced around in hope no one heard her talking to the television.
Nope. People laughed, talked over the loud music.
"Women can't resist when a man's chemistry matches up with hers," the woman said. "It's like magic. The draw is almost impossible to ignore."
Mary snorted in disagreement. "Right."
She shifted in her tiny booth. This pseudo psychologist claimed women had no control over their minds, their bodies. What complete and utter tripe.
"There's a biological imperative why women find men with broad shoulders, significant height, and an ... ahem ... obvious sexual prowess a turn on. He's probably a good provider, a protector, and he'll give her strong children. Like it or not, the primitive brain responds that way."
Mary grimaced. Yeah. Sure. Her hormones responded over and over to the wrong man, damn it. Admitting it didn't come easy,and she refused to start. Who wanted reality when Thanksgiving came in three weeks, and she could hide from the rest of the world and enjoy peace and quiet? She could, on the whole, forget hustle and bustle and pretend the world outside didn't exist, as she had for a few moments drinking her glass of red wine and enjoying dinner. Louis's Bar was a far cry from a pub atmosphere. This place ... well, it didn't fit Gold Rush, Colorado's small city ambiance. Young studs and studettes gravitated to this place as an alternative to sedate meals at home or in a local diner. For that much, she felt grateful. This place bustled with an energy in which she needed to lose herself entirely.
"Men respond to women they see as good breeders," the television psychologist said. "Hence, the reason why blondes have more fun."
Her mouth dropped open, and the last curly fry, which she'd anticipated with such relish, didn't sound so delicious anymore. Blonde hair is indication of being a good breeder? More ridiculous folderol, as her maternal grandmother would have said.
Mary gazed at her hamburger. She'd eaten her enormous burger and fries with complete, guilt-free relish. She'd craved iron all day, well aware her "eat it before it gets away mentality" was motivated by exhaustion and working overtime for a week. It explained her snarky reaction to the television psychologist, her 'tude about work, and her bone-aching desire to head home and rewrite her resume. It also explained her compelling desire to toss one certain man right on his gorgeous ass and tell him to find a life that didn't include annoying her with his sexual vibes. Prowess. Whatever the heck the psychologist on television had said.
She shoved aside her plate, satiated with red meat, and sipped her wine. Nothing like an alcohol jolt to substitute for bravery. She needed courage if she hoped to look for a new job soon. Spending part of her weekend designing a spiffy new resume didn't qualify as enjoying herself. Still, she must do it. Had to leave Gold Rush before his testosterone proved Amanda Prather absolutely right.
And my willpower in the toilet.
Once out of Gold Rush, she could design a new life unhindered by male complications. She could forget that this certain man had turned all her well-honed defenses on their ear.
Her luck didn't last.
In walked her living, breathing definition of sex on a stick. The bane of her existence. The reason she needed to run and run fast.
Dace "Hard Man" Banovic.
She almost groaned. She didn't want to notice him, but she did anyway. Dace didn't swagger, but danger defined his walk, and confidence radiated from him. His muscular, rock-hard form held all these qualities, and he didn't have to say a word. Tall, dark, and handsome described him superficially. No, he was all of those things and none of them, a dichotomy of textures and uniqueness she'd find difficult to describe to anyone who asked. As he came closer, she drank in over six feet of broad-shouldered masculinity. His pitch-dark hair had started to thin at the temples, and this probably motivated him to keep it military short. This took nothing away from the striking symmetry of his nose and penetrating grey eyes. A scar, just noticeable above his right eyebrow, added a tough man look women seemed to find fascinating. As he headed toward Mary, she knew he'd seen her. She couldn't run from the law.
SWAT had come to take her away.
As he walked by tables, women looked up and admired, tossing glances at him and smiling. Of course they'd notice him. After all, he defines all those things the television psychologist harped about, doesn't he? Still, a woman should be able to restrict her responses, control her physical urges, by God.
Finally, Dace stood at her table and glared. He bristled with energy in his long-sleeved SWAT uniform minus all the heavy-duty combat-like gear. But his gaze pinpointed on her, and she glared back. As she opened her mouth to make a smart comment, he slipped into the opposite seat. What reason would he have for glaring as if she'd committed murder?
She brought the merlot to her lips and took a leisurely sip. "What brings you here?"
"Coreen said you're leaving Gold Rush."
"You should never believe anything she says."
His nose wrinkled, which didn't flatter its aristocratic length one bit. "Coreen is a good dispatcher."
Mary's teeth ached, thinking about the woman. "She can also be a bitch. She's gorgeous, twenty-five, and thinks you're seriously hot. Which you're not ... of course."
"Now who is being the bitch?" The amusement in his eyes belied his words.
God, she hated it when he smiled, because two small dimples appeared in his cheeks and all that kick-ass-and-take-names attitude morphed into a devastating combo she never could ignore. How could one man contain that much testosterone and that much charm in one package? It isn't fair.
"She shouldn't have told you," she said in defense.
"Then I guess you should have known better than to let her in on your plans."
"I didn't. I think Hetty George in personnel spilled the beans." She reached into her purse and placed money on the table for her wine and dinner.
Dace grimaced as a new song blared over the speakers. "Damn it, how do you hear above this shit?"
She smirked and touched her right ear. "What? I can't hear you?"
"I said--damn it, never mind."
Before she could take the last gulp of her wine, he stood. "Come with me."
"Because we need to talk."
Curious and a little annoyed, she slid from the booth. To her surprise he took her arm. His grasp assured she'd follow, but he tempered his strength--his grip didn't hurt. She grabbed her purse and wool coat, and trotted along with him, trying to keep pace with his long-legged strides. Unfortunately, people in the bar watched her and the cop exit the restaurant in a hurry. They probably thought he'd placed her under arrest. Charming.
Once outside in the parking lot, he marched her straight past his car, which happened to have "El Torro County Sheriff's Department" plastered on the side.
"Am I under arrest, Officer?"
He steered her around a corner of the building under a not so bright streetlight. "No."
Her boots hit a patch of ice and, with a startled gasp, she went down on her ass with a thump.
"Ah, shit!" Dace squatted next to her, his hand on her shoulder. "God, honey, are you hurt?"
Honey? He'd never called her that before, and the concern in his eyes took her off guard. When she didn't speak, he cupped his hand around the back of her neck and peered into her eyes, worry narrowing his gaze. "Mary, are you hurt?"
His flesh against hers, something that she'd never experienced before, startled her into silence. Unexpected heat generated in her belly, her breath coming quicker. Flustered by his attention, she scrambled to her feet and out of his grasp. She dusted snow off her cold rump and leaned over to reach for her purse and coat. "I'm fine."
His gaze sharpened, more assessing than ever.
She backed up against the brick wall, irritation and something far more potent and unpredictable trembling in her belly. "You could have talked with me in the restaurant. Now everyone is going to think I'm under arrest."
He crossed his arms. "I don't think you really care what other people think. Put your coat on. You'll freeze to death."
She handed him her purse. "Here, hold this."
He did as told while she struggled into her coat. She had trouble slipping into a sleeve. He helped, efficiently holding that side of the coat. To her surprise he grabbed the lapels, pulled them together, and started to button the coat. She almost batted his pesky hands away. His big, nicely shaped, gorgeous male hands. Hands she'd imagined wandering over her body. Her face heated.
"Gee, thanks, Dace." She quirked one brow and looked at the purse dangling over his wrist as he buttoned her coat. "You know, you really look good in that purse." He grunted and handed it to her.
His big frame loomed over her, but even in the low light Mary saw his hard expression. "I couldn't hear over that damned music. I didn't even know you liked places like that."
She shifted her small black leather organizer bag over her shoulder. "I don't. But I'm also not afraid of them like you are."
"You know. Slow dancing. Fast dancing. Any kind of dancing. Remember the party?"
He winced. "Don't remind me."
"Oh, come on. When you were invited you knew there would be dancing."
"I didn't see you dancing either."
"Right. You remember that I had three dances with your friend Decker. I saw you glaring at us."
"What does my dancing preference have to do with any of this?"
"I don't know. I'm making civilized conversation despite the fact you dragged me out here like a dishrag."
A muscle in his jaw clenched, then released. "I didn't drag you." He was closer, his body so near she felt the heat. Smelled his sinful, masculine aroma. "Decker is a putz. I was worried you'd get involved with him."
Surprise kept her silent for a moment, but she found her voice. "Why did you care? It's not like I wasn't safe with him. After all, he's a cop."
"He wouldn't hurt you physically, but I've seen women fall in love with his charm. He's a false bastard. I'd care about any woman getting involved with an asshole like Decker."
She couldn't argue. "Thanks, Dace."
This time, she meant it.
His fingers brushed her cheek softly, then trailed down her arm with gentle heat. Even through the coat, his touch ignited arousal. She shivered at the fire his touch created in her veins.
"Damn it." His voice sounded rough. "When I took your arm in the restaurant, I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Sincerity rolled off him in waves. She heard it and felt it. His scent, a warm musk and leather, tingled in her belly and warmed her from the inside out. Primal feelings engulfed her. When he came so near and smelled so good, she could eat him up with a spoon.
She squeezed his biceps gently in a conciliatory move. "You didn't hurt me. Just pissed me off."
"Why did you come looking for me?" she asked.
"Because of what Coreen told me."
"You couldn't have just talked with me at work on Monday?"
"Hell, no. After I saw your car in front of this place I knew it couldn't wait until tomorrow."
"Tell me why we're standing out here when snow is starting to fall."
Wind swirled small flakes under the eaves of the building, then a huge gust blew by. Still, this part of the building gave them significant shelter from the encroaching storm.
"Tell me why you're leaving the sheriff's department."
The feral concentration in his eyes probed in the way a cop could excavate the darkest secrets from any criminal.
"It's time for a change."
"Everyone needs change occasionally. But I didn't think you were unhappy at the sheriff's department."
"It's not the station so much."
He moved closer, and the intimate distance sent her pulse into a riot. Damn that psychologist. She is friggin' right.
"What then?" he asked.
"Dace, I've worked at the department two years."
He shrugged. "That's not a long time."
She threw her hands up. "Back in Chicago I was an administrative assistant forever. Twelve years at the police department in Chicago, then two years here. I'm tired of doing what I should and not what I want. I'm thirty-five. The years are moving forward, and I'm running to catch up."
"So what? I'm thirty-five, too. You act like you're out of time."
"All of us are. None of us knows what could happen tomorrow."
He cleared his throat and discomfort crossed his features. "Look, if this has any connection to what happened to your father all those years ago, I'm sorry. Something like that can screw up your mind for a long time."
She almost lashed out with hard words, unreasonable anger rushing forward. "It's complicated. Where did you hear about my father?"
She closed her eyes and tilted her head back. "Damn this town and the gossiping. She shouldn't have said anything."
"I asked her. I heard you say something several months ago that intrigued me. I held off a long time until curiosity got the better of me."
Mary opened her eyes. "What did you hear me say?"
"You said you never wanted to have a relationship with a cop. Especially not a SWAT cop. You want to tell me that, all those years working with the Chicago police, you never dated a police officer?"
I can never do that. "Never."
"All I had to say was no. Besides, not that many of them asked me out, and I sure didn't ask any of them out."
Dace put his hands on his hips. "I asked Lakeisha if the police in some way had burned you. That's when she told me about your dad."
She drew in a steadying breath. "Well, I guess I can't be mad at her. I didn't say the information was a secret. I confessed to her about Dad when I was sharing a very large bottle of white wine at a girl's night out."
His mouth twitched in amusement. "Yeah, she said that's what happened." He cleared his throat. "But I'm sorry about your dad. That had to be rough."
"I don't feel the burn that much anymore." She sighed. "But it reminds me every day walking into the sheriff's department why working for law enforcement might not be the best idea for me."
Another one of those charming grins touched his mouth long enough to disarm her. "You seemed like you were having a crappy night that evening at the police officer's charity ball."
She remembered. Boy, did she remember. "My date wasn't the best time I ever had."
"He talked about himself all night." She sighed. She didn't want to talk about the multitude of bad blind dates she'd had over the years, so she started another subject. "You looked quite happy at the ball."
Those crazy-making dimples appeared as he smiled. "It was okay." He grunted. "Janny slipped me her phone number."
She didn't want to think about him finding comfort in any woman's arms the night of the police officer's charity ball. But honestly, she couldn't blame women for drooling over him. He possessed that raging testosterone thing most men in SWAT had--they couldn't help it. Their jobs demanded it.
"As long as you didn't slip her anything."
Oh, crap. I used my out loud voice.
His eyes widened a bit, and then he chuckled. "Why would you care?"
Heat flooded Mary's face as she tried to think of a way to salvage her huge, revealing statement. "Well ... I don't. I just hear that her boyfriend is the jealous type."
Dace rubbed the back of his neck. "I didn't slip her anything. I wasn't interested. So you didn't see that guy again?"
"He's long gone." She pulled the itchy coat collar down away from her face. "At least I learned what a jackass he was that night."
His jaw tightened as anger sparked in his eyes. "What did he do?"
"Pawed me when I didn't want to be pawed."
Oops. Wrong thing to say.
Dace's eyes narrowed, danger coiling his hard, tall body. "Did he hurt you?"
"No. No. He kissed me and took me by surprise. Then when I said I didn't feel that way about him, he yanked me into his arms and kissed me again anyway."
"Son of a bitch. What an ass."
"Yeah, he is." She grinned, wanting to defuse his outrage. "I kneed him in the cojones."
She expected him to smile. He didn't. His mouth twisted. "I ought to go over to his house and--"
"Whoa. Whoa there, cowboy." She gripped his biceps on impulse and solid muscle moved beneath her fingers. "Take it easy. He never bothered me again after that. Besides, he's left town for greener pastures."
He drew in a deep breath. "Sorry. It pisses me off to think of any man hurting you in any way."
To Mary's horror, the idea that he could feel this worked up on her behalf sent her hormones into overdrive. Whether she liked it or not, her breath became shorter, her body warmed until she couldn't feel the chill wind swirling around her ankles.
"I need a grown-up relationship with a grown man. Not a man wannabe."
"There are real men in Gold Rush who want a grown-up relationship." His gaze centered on her lips, then glided with heated hunger over her breasts and back to her eyes. "You're a grown-up. Most definitely."
Flashfire arousal warred with indignation inside her. "Mentally, Dace. I need to find my way."
"Sure, I understand that, too." He scratched his chin. "Do you have another job lined up?"
Curiosity led her to her own question. "Why are you so interested in what I do, Dace? We've only known each other six months. It's not like we're friends..."
"What?" His cop hardness came to the forefront. "Of course we're friends."
"I'm leaving Gold Rush entirely, not just finding a new job."
His eyes widened a fraction. Enough to tell her she'd thrown him a one-two punch. "Why?"
"Because this town doesn't have what I need anymore."
"Maybe you haven't looked hard enough."
She gritted her teeth, then poked him in the chest. Her index finger met the unforgiving hardness of bulletproof vest backed by solid muscle. "You know, that's one thing that irritates me, Dace Banovic. You're always splitting hairs. A person can't ever be right around you, can they?"
His mouth popped open, but then he slammed it shut. Good. She'd silenced him for once.
"I need to go." She pushed one hand through her hair. She shivered as cold wind snaked up her pantyhose-clad legs.
"I just..." Uncertainty flickered through his eyes.
The radio on his shoulder squawked, and with efficiency he reached for the microphone and the dispatcher relayed a mission.
"Ten-four," he said into the mike, his voice crisp and business-like, "responding."
"Old man Douglas is at it again?"
"He's barricaded himself in that trash heap he calls a house. Damn the old bastard." Dace shook his head. "I'll talk to you later."
She started to walk away. "See you."
She halted at his cop-in-command voice and turned back.
One hand on his holster, he gave her a keen look. "Be careful. The roads are getting slick."
She saluted. "Aye, aye, sir."
He smiled and shook his head at her mocking tone.
As he walked toward his car, she headed to hers. As always, Dace had left something unsaid. It seemed all their aborted conversations ended this way. Things hanging in the air. Emotions bubbling right below the surface. Thoughts and feelings dangling like promises never fulfilled.