Authors: Julie Miller
Alex leaned his hip against the corner of her desk and sat, tugging her half a step closer. Her thigh brushed against his, the soft wool of her skirt catching against his denim jeans and the hard muscle underneath. The shock of heat radiating from the frictive caress surprised her. One little brush and her emotions began to cloud her thinking. “I'm okay,” he assured her. “I'm just as tough as I look.” He reached up with one finger to brush her hair away from her cheek and tuck it behind her ear. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Audrey jerked up her chin, fighting the instinct to turn her face into the gentle caress of his hand. “So I ruined a pair of panty hose and suffered a few bumps and bruises. I've had worse.”
Alex pressed his lips into a tight line. “It could have been a
worse. The D.A.'s right about a protection detail. Today was just about sending you a message.”
The note she'd gotten during the party last night blipped into her mind, along with the creepy attention she'd gotten from Bud Preston. She had the feeling he'd been up to something far more sinister than parking cars. The message that someone meant to terrorize her was perfectly clear. But Alex's argument wasn't any comfort.
“A friend of yours was murdered a month ago. And now a bomb goes off when you've got the press and public hounding your every move. If you won't think about yourself, think about the rest of us. Trip said there were no serious injuries at the park this afternoon, but that might not be the case next time someone comes after you.”
“Do you think this is about the Rich Girl murders? Not the Smith trial?”
“I don't know what to think. Yet.” He adjusted his grip, sliding his fingers beneath the sleeve of her jacket.
“But how many people have to get hurt before we do figure it out?”
“I didn't think about that. About them. What if he goes after my father? Or hurts a guard or sets off a bigger bomb orâ¦” Frustration, confusion, guilt and fear all fought to find words inside her. But the calloused pad of his thumb, tracing slow circles at the pulse point of her wrist, seemed to short-circuit her usual eloquence.
“I don't want anyone to get hurt because of me. But I won't quit this case, Alex. I can't.”
“I don't want you to.” Tiny bubbles of heat pooled in her blood where he touched her. “Smith doesn't get to win. I won't let him. I don't want you to let him, either.”
Strange, how his words of support fueled the warmth seeping through her body. She hadn't realized how badly she needed to hear them. She never expected to feel this urge to turn her cheek against one of those shoulders and have Alex's strong arms and body wrap around hers. He could keep her safe. He could make her feel.
It wasn't until she saw her own hand, splayed at the middle of his chest, and felt herself leaning in, her legs
butting for a more intimate position against his thigh, that she realized where her emotions were leading her. Clearing her throat, Audrey pulled away, breaking all contact with Alex's body. She picked up the file folder with both hands, keeping her fingers occupied and her desires on hold until she could get her thoughts back in order.
“Since I have an early morning in court, we should be going.” She stuffed the folder into her attachÃ©, saw there was nothing left to fiddle with on her desk and needlessly reached into the bag to check her phone and wallet and keys. Alex sat there, watching, his dark eyes barely blinking as she angled her chin and laid out her own expectations. “You can walk me to my car in the parking garage and follow me home.”
“You're riding with me.”
“I'll show you how the security system at home works, and you'll see how safe we are. I'd like to introduce you to my father before you leave, and tell him why you're there.”
“I'm staying the night.”
“He's probably already seen or heard something about this afternoon on the news.”
“I can call for a driver in the morningâor have a black-and-white follow me into the city.”
“You forgot this.” Alex slowly straightened beside her, holding up the blood-stained, wrinkled, faded blue bandanna he'd been sitting on.
Heat rushed into Audrey's cheeks and she plucked it from his fingers. It was so soft, still warm from the press of his body. “I didn't mean to keep it so long. I'll get this washed and ironed and returned to you. It was clean this
afternoon beforeâ¦” Right. It was blood-stained. She stuffed it inside her bag. “I'll buy you a new one.”
“Stubborn, I understand. It matches the hair.” She turned to get her coat from the stand beside the door, but Alex was there, blocking her path. Grinning. “But I never pictured you as the sentimental type.”
When it became clear he wasn't going to move, Audrey tipped her chin to look him in the eye. “I am not sentimental. Don't read anything more into keeping your giftâyour old bandannaâthan the fact that I just got busy and forgot I had it. I'll replace it. Your sweater, too. And pay for any medical expenses. I suppose I'll have to pay the city to replace that trash can, also.”
“Shh.” He reached up and traced his fingertips along the line of her jaw.
Audrey shivered and pulled up. “I insist. You probably saved my life. The least I can do is buy you aâ”
“I'm not interested in your money,” he whispered, capturing the point of her chin between his thumb and fingers. He gave her chin the gentlest of tugs down. “I just don't want to see you hurt again. Not by violence or pressure or loss.”
“Stop that.” Was that husky gasp her own voice? And what was so damned mesmerizing about the supple articulation of Alex Taylor's lips?
Audrey opened her mouth, drew in a breath to speak. The scent of his skin filled her nose, distracting her from her argument. His dark eyes hooded and she watched in perplexed fascination as the distance between them vanished and he closed his mouth over hers.
It was a gentle kiss. An unexpected kiss. A very leisurely, thorough, thought-stopping kiss.
Alex pressed his lips to hers, warming her mouth. He touched his tongue to the bow of her mouth, tasted one corner, then the other. The lightest of stubble rubbed against the swell of her bottom lip, leaving it tender and achy and reaching out to hold on to his when he would have pulled away. His tongue stroked the seam of her lips and they parted to feel the warmth of his breath mingling with hers. She tasted the salt on his skin, the coffee he'd been drinking on his tongue. With a helpless moan, she opened more fully, seeking more, welcoming him.
He slid his fingers along her jawline and tunneled them beneath the hair at her nape. There was nothing connecting them beyond his fingers in her hair and his mouth moving over hers. And heat. Languid, silky, slow-moving heat that flowed from his touch into her skin, seeping through her blood, finding and filling a neglected well of doubt and need and want deep inside her.
Audrey's thoughts were cloudy, her skin feverish with a blush of desire when Alex finally pulled away. She felt his chest rise and fall beneath the clutch of her fingers balled in the front of his sweater. His breath washed over her cheek in a rhythm as deep and unsteady as her own. She saw the lines crinkling beside his beautiful eyes and knew he was smiling.
“Why didâ¦? I can'tâ¦” she stuttered.
He brushed his thumb across her lips, sparking and soothing each nerve ending in its wake. “It's okay, Red. I feel this thing between us, too.”
Audrey plucked her hand away and curled it against her stomach, but she couldn't come up with a single word to agree with or deny his hushed revelation.
“Nice.” He stamped her with a quick peck on the lips, looped her bag over her shoulder and retrieved their coats from the hook beside the door. “I'll have to remember that trick next time I want to get a word in edgewise.”
“Trick?” A knee-jerk instinct left Audrey fuming at the amusement at her expense. Whatever heat had dissipated flooded back into her cheeks. Kissing her into silence? Like she could fall prey to some Neanderthal tactic that short-circuited her poise, rerouted her goals and left her thinking only about him, about them, about the next time he might kiss her.
But she wisely turned her back and let him help her into her coat, keeping her sensitized lips pressed tightly together. She had no position to argue from when the man was only telling the truth.
E SCRUBBED THE BABY WIPE
over his face, cleaning off the last of the black makeup he'd worn with his costume. A satisfied smile looked back from his reflection in the mirror.
Audrey Kline had been scaredâhe'd read it in the shock that had blanched her skin. She'd been hurtânothing serious, but enough to know he meant business. She'd been confused by the attackâand maybe that was the most delightful result of all. Confusion and uncertainty had to be particularly frightening for a woman who was used to power and control and having the last word.
was the one in control.
He'd seen the way she'd looked at him. He knew her inside and outâwhat she cared about, what she feared.
She was afraid. She was fighting it. But he'd seen that fear. He'd smelled it on her.
She could throw her money and prestige around, and smile her pretty smile. Hell. Even he'd succumbed to it. But no more. She could steal the spotlight and have her pick of men and a career. But if she thought for one minute that she was better than him, that she could overlook him and not regret the slight, that she could keep him from achieving the success that was rightfully his, then she was woefully mistaken.
Audrey Kline had no power over him. No power. Nada. None.
He tossed the soiled cloth into the trash and carefully nestled the rectangular wipe dispenser box against the sink splash. He had to give his toothbrush and razor a nudge so that they lined up parallel to the dispenser, but the calming release he expected didn't come.
He pressed his fingertips to the knot of tension balling at his temple. Why did he always have to fix things? Why couldn't his world fall into place by itself? Now he had to turn his cell phone ninety degrees on the countertop so that it matched the pattern around the sink. The time flashing on the screen annoyed him further. Today had been a complete success, but the momentary balance in his world was already beginning to shift. He was running out of time to savor the memory of Audrey sprawled on the ground beside the sidewalk, bleeding and afraidâclinging to a stranger because she was too damn stubborn to let anyone besides her precious father into her life.
Hmm. That was a possibility. Rupert Kline was a harder target to reach, but he could certainly prove to be Audrey's Achilles' heel.
If he needed a Plan B.
He breathed in deeply, watching his nostrils flare in the mirrorâseeing the intelligence and foresight that so many people missed reflected in his eyes. A slow smile crept across his mouth. He had yet to need a Plan B.
He released the breath he held and splashed some soap and water on his face. If he didn't get his butt in gear, he'd be late and he'd miss the opportunity to see the aftereffects of the explosion and threats with his own eyes. And that was a payoff he didn't want to miss.
Reaching for his clothes, he mentally fought to maintain the control that was slipping through his fingers. After dressing quickly, he went back to the mirror to pull on his jacket and smooth out the wrinkles in his lapels and collar. A tug here, a brush thereâfinally, he was satisfied that he looked the part expected of him. He'd see Audrey soon. Would she be distressed? Angry? Putting on a brave show for her father? It was too much to hope that she'd fall to pieces. Yet. But the opportunity to observe the results of his handiwork was a reward that hurried him out the door and into his vehicle.
He was speeding out of the city toward the posh suburb where the Klines lived like royalty when his phone rang. He read the number, cursed at the annoyance and pulled onto the interstate before answering the call. “What is it now?”
“The blast didn't kill her!”
This was getting tiresome. “It wasn't supposed to.”
“This is your idea of a plan? We're the ones in there with the cops, risking
necks. We're the ones they're gonna come talk toâyou know that.”
“Don't worry?” The caller cursed. “We tried to kill
that hotshot lawyer today. The cops are gonna come straight to us.”
That wasn't his concern. Still, his partners did offer a unique talent for violence and distraction that served his purpose, and he wasn't ready for them to go to jail. So he'd taken care of them. “Do you know how that bomb was put together?”
“Do you know who I am? Can you give the police my name or describe my face?”
“I can give them this phone number.” Although the tone was menacing, it was an empty threat.
“This is a disposable cellâthey won't be able to trace it. And since we've never met, you can't identify me.” He paused long enough to signal his turn onto the exit ramp. “If you used a stolen car like I suggested and then disposed of it, the police won't be able to put you at the scene of the crime. And if they do, there's no way they can tie the bomb to you. You never touched itâyou just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong timeâlike your boss claims happened to him. The most they can get you for is throwing fruit at a pretty woman. I've given you plausible deniability.”
“You've given me what?”
Idiot. He expelled an impatient breath as he pulled up to a stop light. Then he spelled it out in simple words.
“I've taken care of everything. I took out your witness for you. You rattled the assistant D.A. for me. Events have been set into motion. There's no way she can win this case now.”