Zara Remington brushed a stray tendril of her thick hair back from her face before checking on the lasagna. The cheese bubbled up through the noodles while the scent of the garlic bread in the oven warmer filled the country-style kitchen. Perfect. She shut the oven door and glanced at the clock. Five minutes.
He’d be there in five minutes.
It had been weeks since she’d seen him, and her body was ready and primed for a tussle. Just a tussle. Shaking herself, she repeated the mantra she’d coined since meeting him two months ago. Temporary. They were temporary and just for fun. This was her reward for working so hard: a walk on the wild side. Even if she was the type to settle down and devote herself to one man, it wouldn’t be this one.
Ryker Jones kept one foot out the door, even while naked in her bed doing things to her that were illegal in the Southern states. Good damn thing she lived in Cisco. Wyoming didn’t care what folks did behind closed doors. Thank God.
She hummed and eyed the red high heels waiting by the entry to the living room. They probably wouldn’t last on her feet for long, but she’d greet him wearing them. While she still wore the black pencil skirt and gray silk shirt she’d donned for work, upon reading his text that he was back in town, she’d rushed to change into a scarlet bra and G-string set that matched the shoes before putting her clothes back into place.
If she was living out a fantasy, he should get one, too. The guy didn’t have to know she’d worn granny-style Spanx panties and a thin cotton bra all day.
A roar of motorcycle pipes echoed down her quiet street. Tingles exploded in her abdomen. Hurrying for the shoes, she bit back a wince upon slipping her feet in. The little kitten heels she’d worn to work had been much more comfortable.
A minute passed and the pipes silenced.
She drew air in through her nose, counted to five, and exhaled. Calm down. Geez. She really needed to relax. The sharp rap on her front door sent her system into overdrive again.
Straightening her shoulders, she tried to balance in the heels as she passed her comfortable sofa set, the shoes clicking on the polished hardwood floor. She had to wipe her hands down her skirt before twisting the nob and opening the door. “Ryker,” she breathed.
He didn’t smile. Instead, his bluish green eyes darkened as his gaze raked her from head to toe…and back up. “I’ve missed you.” The low rumble of his voice, just as dangerous as the motorcycle pipes, licked right where his gaze had been.
She nodded, her throat closing. He was every vision of a badass bad boy she’d ever fantasized about. His thick black hair curled over the collar of a battered leather jacket that covered a broad, well-muscled chest. Long legs, encased in faded jeans, led to motorcycle boots. His face had been shaped with long lines and powerful strokes, and a shadow lined his cut jaw. But those eyes. Greenish blue and fierce, they changed shades with his mood.
As she watched, those odd eyes narrowed. “What the fuck?”
She self-consciously fingered the slash of a bruise across her right cheekbone. Cover-up had concealed it well enough all day, but leave it to Ryker to notice. He didn’t miss anything. God, that intrigued her. His vision was oddly sharp, and once he’d mentioned hearing an argument several doors down. She hadn’t heard a thing. “It’s nothing.” She stepped back to allow him entrance. “I have a lasagna cooking.”
He moved in to her, heat and his scent of forest and leather brushing across her skin. One knuckle gently ran across the bruise. “Who hit you?” The tone held an edge of something dark.
She shut the door and moved away from his touch. “What? Who says somebody hit me?” Turning on the heels and barely keeping from landing on her butt, she walked toward the kitchen, remembering to sway her hips before making it past the couch. “I have to get dinner out or it’ll burn.” She kept several frozen dishes ready to go, not knowing when he’d be back in town. The domestication worked well for them both, and she liked cooking for him. Enjoyed taking care of him like that…for this brief affair, or whatever it was. “I hope you haven’t eaten.”
“You know I haven’t.” He stopped inside the kitchen. “Zara.”
She gave an involuntary shiver from his low tone and drew the lasagna from the oven and bread from the warmer before turning around to see him lounging against the doorjamb. “Isn’t this when you pour wine?” Her heart fluttered at seeing the contrast between her pretty butter yellow cabinets and the deadly rebel calmly watching her. “I have the beer you like.”
“You always have the beer I like.” He didn’t move a muscle, and this time a warning threaded through his words in a tone like gravel crumbling in a crusher. “I asked you a question.”
She forced a smile and carried the dishes to the breakfast nook, which she’d already set with her favorite Apple-patterned dinnerware and bright aqua linens. “And I asked you one.” Trying to ignore the tension vibrating from him, she grasped a lighter for the candles.
A hand on her arm spun her around. She hadn’t heard him move. How did he do that?
He leaned in. “Then I’ll answer yours. I know what a woman looks like who’s been hit. I know by the color and slant of that bruise how much force was used, how tall the guy was, and which hand he used. What I don’t know…is the name of the fucker. Yet.”
“How do you know all of that?” she whispered.
He lifted his head, withdrawing. “I just do.”
There it was. He’d share his body and nothing else with her. She didn’t even know where he lived when he wasn’t on a case. From day one he’d been clear that this wasn’t forever, that he wasn’t interested in a future. Neither was she. He was her first purely physical affair, and that’s why he could mind his own business. “Bully for you.” She shoved past him for the wine, waiting on the counter, and twisted in the corkscrew with a little more force than was necessary. Why was he changing the game on her?
“Are you seeing somebody else?”
She stilled. Hurt, surprising in its sharpness, cut through her. “No.” Yanking out the cork, she turned to face him. “We said we’d be exclusive for however long we, ah, saw each other.”
He rubbed the scruff on his chin, studying her. “Part of exclusivity means nobody hurts what’s mine.”
She blinked twice at the possessive language. “I think we both know I’m not yours.” What was going on with him? She studied him closer. Lines fanned out from his eyes, and a tenseness lived in his broad shoulders. “Are you okay?”
Without moving, he seemed to withdraw. “Yes. Been on a case.”
“Is it finished?”
“No.” A vein stood out along his tough-guy neck.
Ah. Ryker was a private detective who specialized in finding the hard to find. “Want to talk about it?”
Yeah, she’d figured. “Then let’s relax.” She poured two glasses of Cabernet and took a seat, carefully unfolding her napkin. Her toes ached in the sexy shoes, and for the first time, she wondered if all the effort was worth it. “We can have a nice dinner.”
Slowly, he shrugged out of his jacket and draped it on his chair, drawing the chair out to sit, his movements controlled and with a hint of something…violent.
Her breath caught, and she filled their plates.
“I like your hair down,” he rumbled, reaching for his napkin.
“Yet I kept it up,” she said primly. They were on even footing. This was casual, and apparently they both needed a quick reminder. Sitting back, she took a deep drink of the potent brew, almost humming when it warmed her stomach.
He lifted his chin, amusement partially banishing the irritation in his eyes. “Have I done something to piss you off?”
Her gaze dropped to the food. “No.” She wasn’t being fair. Her law firm had hired him as a private investigator on a case, and one night after going through files together and drinking way too much beer, they’d ended up in bed for the most fantastic night of her life. He’d made it clear it was just temporary, they were just casual, and she’d agreed with her eyes wide open, meeting up whenever he was back in town. “You haven’t done anything.”
“Then why won’t you tell me who hurt you?”
She sighed, her gaze meeting his. “Because that’s not what we have.”
“Oh?” One eyebrow drew up. “What do we have?”
She snorted and then caught herself, embarrassed. “We have this.” She gestured toward the food. “And sex. That’s all. Food and sex.” He’d never proclaimed to be a knight in shining armor, especially hers, so why all the questions? “My everyday life doesn’t include you. You’re a fantasy who shows up periodically for fun, and then you’re gone. Stop acting like you’re more.”
If the words affected him in any way, he didn’t show it. Instead, he reached for his wine, his gaze holding hers like a lion watching a doe, and drank down the entire glass. Setting it aside, he tossed his napkin on the table. “Are you hungry?”
“Not even a little bit.” She was more out of sorts than she’d thought.
“Good.” He pushed back from the table, stood, and moved toward her. “This is a conversation better had where I can touch you.” Dipping his shoulder, he lifted her in corded arms.
She yelped and grabbed his chest for balance. “What are you doing?” she whispered. How was he so strong? Even for a healthy guy who worked out, his strength was somehow beyond the norm. Fluid and natural.
He turned, grabbed his jacket, and strode for the living room, dropping onto her couch and setting those thick boots on her glass coffee table. The jacket had landed next to him. One arm remained beneath her knees and the other around her shoulders, easily cradling her against his rock-hard chest. His lips snapped over her jugular with just enough force to make her jump. Then, clearly indulging himself, he tugged the clip from her hair, which cascaded down. Burying his face in the mass of dark curls, he breathed in. “I love your hair.”
She tried to perch primly on his lap and not snuggle right into him. His strength was as much of a draw as his passion. “What conversation did you want to have?”
He leaned back and waited until she’d turned her head to face him. “We agreed to keep this casual.”
“I know.” She played with a loose thread on his dark T-shirt.
“Then you started cooking me dinner.”
She blinked. “I like to cook.”
“Then you started keeping my beer on hand and lighting candles with every meal.”
She shrugged. “Candles create nice light that helps with digestion.” Could she sound like any more of a dork?
“Right.” He played idly with her hair, heat from his body keeping her toasty warm.
Flutters awakened again throughout her body, and her nipples hardened. Good thing the bright red bra had plenty of padding. She tried to shift her weight, not surprised when he kept her easily in place. “I have not asked you for anything,” she murmured, panic beginning to take hold.
“I like that about you.” He punctuated the words with a tug on her hair. “In fact, I like you.”
“I like you, too.” The words, until now, had gone unsaid, but that’s all they had, and that’s all they were. It was an adventure, and she was truly enjoying the ride. She knew where they stood. “Stop playing with me.”
“I’m not playing.” His gaze dropped to her lips right before he leaned in to rest his mouth over hers.
Liquid fire shot from her chest to her sex.
He nibbled on her bottom lip, kissed the corners of her mouth, lightly whispering against her. “This is playing.” The hand in her hair twisted, drawing back her head and elongating her neck. “This is not.” He swooped in, angled his mouth over hers, and took. Deep and hard, he kissed her, his mouth alone having enough power to drive her head back against his palm.
Hunger slammed through her, and she moaned low in her throat. Pleasure swamped her, head to toe, vibrating in waves as she kissed him back. Her nails dug into his chest, and she tried to move closer into him. He controlled the kiss, taking her deeper, his erection easily discernible beneath her butt.
Finally, he lifted his head, his eyes the color of a rocky riverbed beneath a stormy sky. “Who hit you?”
The simple words struck like a splash of cold water in the face. Shock dropped her mouth open. Had he been trying to manipulate her by kissing her like that? Sure, he’d been passionate with her many times, but something felt different. A wildness she’d always sensed in him seemed to be breaking free. “Forget you.” Slamming her hand against his chest, she shoved off his lap.
“Zara.” One word, perfectly controlled. He held up a hand, showing a long scar across his love line. One that he’d never explained, even when she’d asked nicely.
Her knees shook, but she backed away until her shoulders hit the fireplace mantel. Anger and panic welled up in her, and she couldn’t separate them and think, so she just spoke. “Unless we’re eating or screwing, my life is none of your business.” She was trying hard to keep her sanity and so did not need mixed signals from him. He didn’t get to act like he really cared—not that way. “Got it?”
He stood, towering over her even from several feet away. “That may be true, but no way am I going to let anybody harm the woman I’m fucking.”
Fucking. Yeah, that’s exactly what they were doing. She was so out of her depth, she’d lost sight of the shore miles ago. “Stay in your own compartment, Ryker. My business is my own, and you’re not to get involved.”
For the first time, anger sizzled across his features. “Be careful what you say, little girl. I’ll make you eat those words.”
She blinked. Sure, he’d been commanding in bed…a lot. But outside the bedroom, she’d never seen this side of him. “Don’t threaten me.”
“Then don’t be obtuse. If you think I’m going to allow a man who hit you to keep walking, you’ve lost your damn mind.” He put both hands on his fit hips, looking like a pissed-off warrior about to bellow a battle cry. “We may be casual, but even I have limits. A woman who cries on my shoulder after watching a stupid movie with dogs is someone who should never be harmed.”
She gasped. “It wasn’t stupid.” It was sad when Juniper had died, darn it.
“Yeah. It was one of the dumbest movies ever made, and you turned into my shoulder to cry it out.” He took a step toward her. “You don’t want to mess with me on this. Trust me. Just give me the name, and tell me what’s going on.” Another step.
She couldn’t back up any more or she’d be in the fireplace. So she held out a hand. Panic cramped her stomach, and she sucked in air and tried for anger. There it was. “I created a situation, there was an issue, and I’ve taken care of it.” The truth would change his opinion, and she kind of enjoyed the view from the pedestal he temporarily had her on.
“No way did you create any situation that resulted in violence.” The tone was almost mocking.
“That’s it. You don’t know me.” Her chin lifted.
Something too dark to be amusement lifted his lips. “Oh, don’t I?”
“No, you don’t.” Steam should be coming out of her ears. She reached down and plucked a high heel off. It was time to stop pretending to be somebody she just was not. “I don’t like these, and I sure as shit don’t walk around at work in them.” Her tone was two octaves higher than normal, and she couldn’t help it. Angling back, she threw the shoe at his head.
With lightning-quick reflexes, he grabbed the strap before the shoe took out his eye. “Zara.” The tone was low and controlled…like always.
“You wouldn’t like the real me.” She kicked off the other shoe, her mind buzzing and her temper flying free. Reaching under her skirt, she yanked off the G-string underwear that had been shoved up her butt, her legs wobbling when she pulled them down and over her feet. “Nobody likes these.” She flung it at his head. “I only wear them for you.”
He snatched the flimsy material with one finger, his cheek creasing.
She fought the urge to stomp her foot and look like an idiot. He wasn’t getting it. “I don’t even know where you live,” she yelled.
His phone buzzed, and he held up a hand. “Put the tantrum on hold, just for a second.” Drawing the phone out, he read the screen. Both his eyebrows drew down, and he lifted the phone to his ear. “We’ve had movement?” Then he held still. His jaw hardened even more. “Damn it. Okay, I’m going.” He paused, and his eyes darkened. “Because you just got shot. It’s my turn to go, and I’ll be right there.” He shoved his phone back into his pocket.
Her breath heated. “Who got shot?”
Ryker had a brother?
He took several steps forward to grasp her neck.
She stilled. He’d never grabbed her neck before. Sure, his hold was gentle, but his hand was wrapped around her neck. “What are you doing?” she squeaked.
He leaned in, pressing just enough to show his strength. “I know you don’t wear shoes like that at work, and I know the underwear set is just for me. I like that.” He pressed a hard kiss to her mouth before drawing away. “I have to go, or I’d stay until we reached an agreement tonight. That bruise on your face offends me, and I’m done coddling you about it. You’ve got until tomorrow morning to give me the name of the guy who hit you, so I can have a conversation with him.”
Ryker released her to grab his jacket and stride for the front door.
“Or what?” she asked, her voice trembling.
He opened the door and paused, looking back at her. “Or I’ll find him myself and take him out for good.” He yanked on his jacket, looking exactly like the badass rambling man he was. “And Zara? About where I live?”
“I moved permanently to Cisco a week ago.”