Touch of the White Tiger

BOOK: Touch of the White Tiger
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“Julie Beard is one of the few writers who takes the concept of love and passion right to the brink! Keep up the wonderful writing, Julie. I’m a fan for life!”


A Romance Review

“Look, Mr. Gorky…Vladimir…I think I’ve done a bad job of communicating here. I believe you’re going to murder me.”

He put his hand over his heart. “It hurts me to think that Lola’s daughter doesn’t trust me. I wanted you to think of me as an uncle. Now get in the car.”

“Why would I want to get in a car with you?”

“I’m not plotting to kill you, Angel, but I know who is. Now get in the damn car!” He said it with a smile as he pounded a dent into the hood of the limo. I had to give the guy credit for being a master of the unexpected.

Startled into complacency, I got into the car.

To my everlasting regret.

Dear Reader,

What is a Bombshell? Sometimes it’s a femme fatale. Sometimes it’s unexpected news that changes everything. Sometimes it’s a book you just can’t put down! And that’s what we’re bringing to you—four fascinating stories about women you’ll cheer for!

Such as Angel Baker, star of
USA TODAY
bestselling author Julie Beard’s
Touch of the White Tiger
. This twenty-second-century gal doesn’t know who is killing her colleagues, but she’s not about to let an aggravating homicide cop stop her from finding out. Too bad tracking the killer is
exactly
what someone wants her to do….

Enter an exclusive world as we kick off a new continuity series featuring society’s secret weapons—a group of heiresses recruited to bring down the world’s most powerful criminals! THE IT GIRLS have it going on, and you’ll love Erica Orloff’s
The Golden Girl
as she tracks a corporate spy in her spiked Jimmy Choos!

Ever feel like pushing the boundaries? So does Kimmer Reed, heroine of
Beyond the Rules
by Doranna Durgin. When her brother sics his enemies on her, Kimmer’s ready to take them out. But the rules change when she learns her nieces are pawns in the deadly game….

And don’t miss the Special Forces women of the Medusa Project as they track down a hijacked cruise ship, in
Medusa Rising
by Cindy Dees! Medusa surgeon Aleesha Gautier doesn’t trust the hijacker who claims he’s on their side, but joining forces will allow her to keep her enemy closer….

Enjoy! And please send your comments to me, c/o Silhouette Books, 233 Broadway Ste. 1001, New York, NY 10279.

Sincerely,

Natashya Wilson
Associate Senior Editor, Silhouette Bombshell

Julie Beard

Touch of the White Tiger

Books by Julie Beard

Silhouette Bombshell

Kiss of the Blue Dragon
#5

Touch of the White Tiger
#57

JULIE BEARD

is the
USA TODAY
bestselling author of nearly a dozen historical novels. With her first Angel Baker action-adventure novel,
Kiss of the Blue Dragon,
she made a no-holds-barred debut in contemporary fiction worthy of a Bombshell heroine. She loves kickboxing, debating politics and being walked by her Basenji dogs. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and two children, one of whom was adopted from China. Julie is a former television reporter and college journalism instructor who has penned a critically acclaimed “how to” book for romance writers.

To Amy Berkower and Julie Barrett,
for being there when it mattered the most.

Chapter 1

Tit for Tat

 

O
nce upon a time, I would tell anyone who asked about what I did for a living that I liked to make men sweat.
Men
. As in plural. And though a double entendre was implied, what I really meant was that I liked to scare big tough guys who like to hurt people.

Scaring bullies is easy to do when you’re a Certified Retribution Specialist like me, armed with extensive Chinese wushu fighting skills and a Glock. Did I mention my G136? It’s a sleek black semiautomatic handgun that shoots bullets or laser.

In the year 2104, just about any weapon goes. The Wild West of the 1880s ain’t got nuthin’ on twenty-second century Chicago. With the neo-Russian and Mongolian Mobs running rampant on the streets, in business and in government,
I’d even say we beat the 1920s hands down. That, of course, was the era of the famed Italian mobster Al Capone and friends. The Cosa Nostra has since been reduced to theme park motifs and legal real estate deals, but that doesn’t mean the world is any safer.

I recently learned a fancy word that describes my world: dystopia, which is the opposite of utopia. But I digress.

The point is that my unusual profession grew out of a need for order. The Scientific Justice Act of 2032 tried to take the bias out of the criminal justice system by tipping the scales in favor of DNA and other high-tech evidence. De-emphasizing good old-fashioned common sense created unexpected loopholes. As a result, the court system is now a wreck and cops are overwhelmed. So crime victims who feel they’ve been cheated out of justice often turn to retributionists for help. For a fee, we deliver criminals to their victims for a little payback time.

Some people—especially the police—consider Certified Retribution Specialists vigilantes, but we’re professionals serving an important function in society. Granted, we haven’t been embraced by the establishment, but we hadn’t been outlawed, either. Not yet, anyway.

But the state of my profession wasn’t exactly dominating my thoughts. Lately I’d been obsessing over a detective named Riccuccio Marco. Though we’d made love only once, that was all it had taken to show me that lovemaking really can be an art form.

Ah, yes, I know, cops are so boringly upright. Now, there’s a play on words. But Marco is different. Not only is he a detective with the Chicago Police Department, he’s a former psychologist. And to really complicate matters, I recently found out he was briefly involved with the Russian Mafiya Organizatsia when he was younger. You gotta love a man
with a past. Exactly what it was, I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to make art again.

But that was proving maddeningly difficult.

 

I rang the telecom buzzer at his downtown flat and nervously pronged my fingers through my spiked, blond hair, using the brass buzzer as a mirror. Normally, I didn’t care what anybody thought about my looks, but this was different. I was here to further pursue my relationship with Detective Marco. That is if he wanted to.

“He-he-he,” came a whiskey-rotted voice from a weaving figure to my right. I made the mistake of inhaling just as the toxic cloud reached my nose.

I turned and found a methop junkie, drooling on his ragged shirt, grinning at my chest. He obviously hadn’t been to a dentist since the last millennium celebration, and he reeked of Eau de Middle Ages. That’s what happened when you cared more about your next hit of methamphetamines and opium than you cared about taking your next breath.

“What are you looking at?” I pressed the buzzer more forcefully.

“You, baby. Are those tits for real?”

I glanced down at my tight, leather V-necked vest. This was as close to cleavage as I ever got, and it wasn’t much. If this creep thought my breasts were surgically endowed, he needed more than a long bath. “They’re real and they’re off-limits, so get lost.”

“Let me give those melons a squeeze,” he said without sparing my face a glance. When he reached out with both hands, I felt like a fruit stand at a green grocers. “Nice an’ ripe, I’ll bet. How much do you charge, baby?”

“You don’t want to do this,” I said calmly. “Trust me.”

But he was too doped up or dumb to listen. Hunched over,
arms extended, he zeroed in on his targets with surprising precision, but before he could make contact, I snapped my arm out in a quick backhand punch to his jaw. He went down just as the door opened.

“Hey!” the junkie protested, rubbing his chin. “That hurt like hell.”

Marco looked at me in surprise, then frowned at the junkie sprawled on the sidewalk. “What happened?”

“Sticker shock,” I replied. “Don’t worry. He’ll survive. I went out of my way to avoid his windpipe.”

“Very thoughtful,” Marco said sarcastically. Our eyes locked and sparks flew. He grinned slowly. “He had no clue what he was up against, did he?”

I smiled back. “They never do.”

“Come on in. I was just about to take a break.”

“From what?” I stepped inside a long, restored loft with shiny blond wood floors and an intriguing maze of pipes looming from the ceiling high above. I breathed in the foreign, pungent odor of turpentine and paint, and quickly surveyed brick wall after wall adorned with large canvasses covered in brilliant hues, some arrayed in geometric impressions and some realistically drawn.

My God
, I thought,
is Marco also a painter?

I whirled around to gaze at him in frank wonder and realized he wore no shirt. How I had missed that was beyond me. Paint-spattered, threadbare jeans slouched at his jutting hip bones. A line of dark, silky hair intersected his naval and spread up his flat belly, fanning upward and outward over the mounds of olive skin and muscle that defined his breast bone. Red paint smeared over an inch of his collarbone. My gaze wandered up to his ruggedly handsome face.

With a square, shadowed jaw, a seductive, lush mouth and brown eyes that could undress you in seconds flat, he made
my mouth water. It was amazing. I was right to come here. You can’t fight fate.

Wait a minute! Be cool, Angel
, I told myself.
Be cool
. Then I shrugged and said, “So. You wanna make love?”

Oh, God, what did I say?
Could I turn and run? No, not cool. Could I take it back? Impossible. Nothing left to do but pretend I had planned it. So I crossed my arms, shifted weight, jutting my right hip in a cocky pose. I raised one brow challengingly and waited for what seemed like the most agonizing and longest minute of my life to pass.

Marco simply stared at me as if he, too, couldn’t believe I’d been so bold, so blunt. So stupid. Then he moved toward me, his bare feet padding on the floor amid the frayed hems of his jeans, and before I knew it, he’d scooped me up off my feet, both of his deceptively strong arms wrapped around my waist.

I steadied myself, putting my hands on his bare shoulders. His muscles seemed to melt beneath my fingers. I found myself kneading them. Just touching this man made me feel like I was running a fever.

Except for the one time we’d made love, I’d only seen him in suits and long sleeves. I’d thought of him as a studly but aging cop. Now he seemed like a not-so-middle-aged wild thing, more the unpredictable assassin I imagined him to be after his confession about his Mob ties. That’s who I saw, anyway, when I caught my breath and looked down into his gorgeous upturned face. Pheromones shot out from him like the grand finale of a Fourth of July celebration. He smelled musky and masculine with a hint of sweat from hard work—my favorite cologne.

“Did you just ask me if I want to make love?” His husky voice vibrated in his chest. His gaze skewered me with a “You’d better not be joking” look.

I spread my hands over his day-old beard and up through his thick, natural dark curls of hair. “Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

A touch of gray distinguished his temples, and his long-lashed, bedroom eyes ended with a trace of crow’s-feet, the legacy of too many deep smiles in the sun. He was all man, and he was mine. And he was just mature enough to make a relationship dangerous. I craved opening up to him, and dreaded it at the same time. If he really knew me—and he was smart enough to do that in time—would he still want me?

“Yes.” A simple reply. The last nail in the coffin.

He roughly grabbed my nape and pulled my lips to his. They were briefly tender, like silk, but soon parted and we melded in a mind-blowing French kiss. I wrapped my legs around his waist, feeling like I’d fallen into the eye of a hurricane. Everything around me was chaos. But something in me knew this was where I was supposed to be, and I grew calm, intent on consuming him.

I hadn’t realized he was walking, but we dropped together onto a mattress laying on a low platform in the back of the loft. We scrambled together, still kissing, as we tugged off our clothes. Jeans and leather gave way to the rub of taut muscles and slick skin. I was like a champagne cork ready to pop and nearly did when he stretched out on top of me, his long, strong legs entwining with mine.

I was ready. He was ready. Then I made the mistake of talking. Pulling from his lips, I said, “I guess your answer is yes.”

It was a joke. He smiled. But the ironic gleam in his eyes turned cloudy. He didn’t move, but I could almost see his emotional retreat, like one of those fancy camera moves in old-time horror flicks, when the dolly holding the camera retreats fast while the lens zooms in.

His interest slackened in the most obvious place. I gripped his shoulders, pulling him closer.
No
, I wanted to say,
don’t stop now
. But I wouldn’t beg.

He drew up and sank on his knees, straddling me. He put his hands on his bare hips and tugged his lips into a rueful smile. “Now that you mention it, Baker, the answer is no. I don’t want to make love.”

I was speechless. “I don’t…understand.”

He rose from his knees to a stand in one graceful swoop, then started pulling on his jeans. “I told myself that when the time came I would say no. But I let my desire get the better of me.”

I sat up, crossing my arms over my bare breasts. “Why? Am I so appalling to you?”

“Obviously not,” he said wryly as he zipped his pants. He raked both hands through his hair, looking older than he had a few minutes ago. “Get dressed. I’ll make some coffee.”

Reluctantly, I dressed, my humiliation slowly turning to anger. By the time I found his galley kitchen, which was ultrahigh-tech and gleaming with silver, I was ready for a fight.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” I declared. He tried to hand me a cup of java. I crossed my arms, so he placed it on a small round table.

“Cream and sugar?” he asked calmly as he returned to pour a second cup.

“You can’t make love to a woman like you did with me, Marco, and then just expect her to forget about you! What am I saying?” I laughed bitterly. “You probably do it all the time.”

He balanced a small pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar in one hand, and a second cup of coffee in the other, placing them nonchalantly on the table like a restaurateur making the final touches before opening the doors. Then he turned to me with a look of bored patience.

“You’re still angry?”

“I’m pissed as hell.”

He pulled me close with a grip on my upper arms, cocoon
ing me in a bearish embrace that was now distinctly brotherly in tone. With a firm grip that was neither rough nor gentle, he lifted my chin and kissed me as if he was teaching me a lesson. I stiffened, but soon my lips succumbed to his sensuous rotation. I resisted as long as I could, but the truth was his kisses were better than drugs.

When he was done, he pulled back and gazed at me assessingly. I dropped my head on his chest, undone again. He scooped up my head with hands on my cheeks and looked at me intensely.

“Do you think I kiss just any woman like that?”

I groaned pathetically. “Yes.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

My swollen lips tugged wryly. “Gee, thanks. You do wonders for my esteem.”

“I care for you, Angel. Too much. I haven’t allowed myself to do that in a long time.”

That implied yet more personal history that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about. “You’ve been hurt?”

I saw it for an instant in his eyes—pain so deep it gave me a chill. He poured cream and sugar in his coffee, then sat in a little round chair too small for him, crossing his legs casually. “Anyone over the age of thirty has been hurt.”

“I’m twenty-eight. Age doesn’t have much to do with it.”

“The older you get, the tougher you are. The harder it is to hurt. But when someone does manage to do it…”

He trailed off and frowned seriously as he took a sip of the steaming coffee.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Marco.”

He looked me up and down as if he was logically considering whether that was true. “You’re a beautiful woman, Angel Baker. Fit and energetic, brave and yet grounded. Your heart is…very tender. I know you’ve been hurt, and I know you
would never intentionally harm me. But I can’t watch you die. I’ve done that too many times already.”

“Watch me die?” I said with a disbelieving laugh, taking the seat opposite him. I grabbed the cup I’d earlier rejected. “You don’t have much faith in my abilities if you think I’m going to die.”

“You’re a retributionist, kiddo. Do you know what the mortality statistics are for your profession?”

“I’m careful,” I said soberly. “And I’m good.”

“Have you thought about your responsibility to Lin? What if something happens to you? Where will she be then?”

I shut my eyes and laughed ruefully. “You really go for the jugular, you know that?” I took a fortifying breath, folded my hands and pinned him with my robins-egg blue eyes. “I’m not going to abandon my foster child—not to death, not to the state foster care system. Not to anyone.”

“Then you’d better quit while you can. While you’re still alive.”

“Is this about your police committee that’s trying to get the state legislature to outlaw my profession?”

He shook his head. “No. This is personal.”

“I’m not going to do it, Marco.”

“Do it for Lin.”

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