Trust no one. Barrett Gilmore survives by that creed. She learned it the hard way. The tough times are mostly behind her now. And if she’s not really happy, at least she’s at peace. Until Michael Falco storms into her life. Sure, she’s grateful he stepped in when she was attacked on the street, but she never asked him to play the hero in the rest of her life. She doesn’t need rescuing. But still he pursues her. He wants her. Barrett knows there’s an angle. A man with his wealth could only want one thing from a woman like her. And she’s not for sale. She doesn’t trust him, but worse, she doesn’t trust herself around him. Barrett knows how to survive. But with Michael, she’ll learn how to live.
A split second before someone grabbed her from behind, she sensed it was going to happen. The air went electric. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. But that instant's warning wasn't enough. A pair of arms wrapped around her, squeezing her arms against her body, thrusting the air from her chest.
It was the skinny dude from the steps. He was stronger than he looked. "I don't want your shitty burgers, bitch," he hissed in her ear. "Give me your money. I know you got some."
Her mind went blank before muscle memory kicked in. Then, grabbing his arms, she bent her knees in a crouch, brought the weight of her body low, dragged his arms down. Then she stomped his left foot hard and kicked back at his knee.
It was enough to force him to loosen his hold and let her break free, but it had been too long since she'd had to defend herself. She was off her game. The dude grabbed her again, this time by the hoodie. She should have done the smart thing, slip out of the garment and take off, but she was too fucking pissed. Who was this asshole to put his hands on her? She aimed a fist at his face, but only grazed him. They both toppled to the pavement.
While Barrett and the mugger grappled on the sidewalk, she vaguely came aware of the screech of tires, shouts, and pounding footsteps. One second she was peeling the dude's fingers off her neck, and the next second he was gone as though vaporized.
A face stared down at her. A different face. "Are you all right?"
"Uh…" Was she? She'd had the wind knocked out of her, but otherwise didn't think she was hurt. Before she could say more, strong hands were lifting her to her feet.
She found herself looking at a man not much taller than her own five-eight, whippet-lean, with sharp, hungry features. "Did he hurt you?"
"No." She'd be bruised tomorrow for sure, but other than that… "I'm okay." When she tried to pull her hand from his, pain lanced up her right arm. She winced. Damn it, she must have twisted it in the scuffle.
The man's eyes narrowed, catching her hiss of pain. "He did."
"I'm okay." Her own stupid fault for tangling with a guy who was high, desperate, or both.
"No, you're not." The man held her by the left elbow as though he had no intention of letting her go. "What the hell were you thinking, coming alone to this part of town at night?"
Though she'd been kicking herself just a moment ago, anger sparked at the thought of this stranger lecturing her. Even if he had come to her aid. "You're here, aren't you?" Ever the smart-ass.
He blinked, as though he wasn't used to back talk. It was then she noticed his fancy suit and tie and the cut of his long coat. At the curb sat a sleek black sedan. He was money. The kind used to giving orders and having them obeyed.
"So. Barrett." He pushed aside his untouched cup and folded his arms on the table. "Why don't you tell me why we're here."
"Kendra called. Said you've offered a building to ACT."
"Nothing as grand as that. Just some office space. She said your lease was ending and the organization would have to find a new location."
"All the same, that's pretty generous."
He didn't answer, simply shrugged, which for some reason pissed her off. Was it really such a little thing to him that he could slough it off? How privileged was this guy?
"So what's the catch?" she asked.
His eyes widened. She'd noted their unusual color more than once, but now she was taken by his eyelashes, so dark and long. Lashes that would make most women jealous.
"What are you talking about?" He looked mystified.
Barrett wasn't fooled. There was always a catch, a stinger, an ulterior motive. Everything came with a cost. She just didn't know what Falco's was.
"Why are you doing this? Is it some kind of tax write-off or something?"
Anger flickered in his face. "Why do you assume I have some selfish reason? Can't I simply do something decent?"
Could he? Barrett wavered. Was she so cynical that she no longer believed anyone capable of decency?
"I don't know," she murmured.
"When you spoke about ACT and the people it helped, you were so passionate. I was moved." He placed his hand over hers on the table. "You were so—"
"Dedicated. Yeah, that's what you told Kendra." She gazed down at his hand covering hers. She ought to snatch hers back and let him know he had no right to touch her. The thing was, she didn't want to.
And that scared her. So she said the bitchiest thing she could think of. "Are you doing all this because you want to get in my pants?"
She cringed as soon as the words left her mouth. Sure, Barrett. You're so hot the man will donate a building to get you. Conceited much?
Falco's eyes narrowed as he withdrew his hand. "Don't be crude."
"Is that the problem? I phrased it too crudely?"
His face was immobile. God, was the man made of ice? "You're better than this," he said.
Even though she knew she was in the wrong, she couldn't back down. Never show weakness. "How should I say it, then? Do you want to have sex with me? Sleep with me? Make love?" She rolled her eyes to show her contempt for the cheesy romantic sentiment.
Without so much as blinking an eye, Falco responded. "Yes, I do. But that's not why I want to help ACT."
His honesty disarmed her and left her speechless. Not so clever now, are you, smart-ass?
"They're two completely unrelated things. One is not contingent on the other." He leaned forward, invading her space, and it was all she could do not to draw back. "So to answer your question, I want to help your organization, and I want to sleep with you. Does that satisfy you?"
An unwanted image flashed in her mind: an image of the two of them in bed together. Heat instantly suffused her. A tingle ran up her spine, and tendrils of need unfurled throughout her body. Her breasts felt tight and heavy, and her belly trembled. And lower down, desire pulsed insistently between her thighs. She grew wet.
Well, her brain might resist the thought, but her body was gung ho. She wanted him. Falco, of all people. How did that make sense? And how long had it been since she'd felt sexual toward anyone? She'd wondered if that part of her had shut down completely.
Barrett almost wanted to laugh. Looks like you're not ready for the convent just yet.
He'd decorated his bedroom in shades of blue. Crisp white sheets contrasted with the navy coverlet on top of the large four-poster bed. The dark wood dresser and armoire gleamed with polish.
"Nice," Barrett remarked. She was afraid to say more, afraid her voice would tremble. Damn it, she wanted this. Why was she so nervous?
Before they reached the bed, Michael released her hand and faced her. There he stood, perfectly still, as though giving her time to change her mind. Back down, if that was her choice.
Hell, no. Sucking in a deep breath, she reached for his tie. Sweat popped out on her hairline as she fumbled with the knot. At last she gave up—she wanted to sleep with the guy, not strangle him. "I'm already out of my depth." She gave him a lopsided smile.
The smile he returned was genuine, full of warmth. "Not at all." He made short work of the tie, unfastening it and tossing it onto the bed. He made it look so easy, just like everything he did.
All right. Maybe his tie had her confounded, but for sure she could handle his shirt buttons. Before she undid the first button, though, he stopped her. "Wait."
Her hands fell to her side as he slipped his arms around her. Barrett lost herself in the scent of him, soap and aftershave enlivened by the heat of his skin. Closing her eyes, she swayed into him, resting her head on his shoulder. In drowsy surprise, she heard the soft purr of her back zipper being lowered. The silky material fell from her shoulders as he undressed her.
He was good at this. Much better than she was. A tiny spurt of jealousy needled her. How much practice did he have?
What's the difference? He's here with you now.
She had to up her game. Stepping back, she let the dress slide down her torso, then gave a little shimmy to have it fall to the floor. The heat that sparked in his eyes filled her with satisfaction. Kicking the garment aside, she reached for his buttons.
He pulled her against him and pressed his mouth to hers, flicking his tongue against her lips until she opened them for his exploration. Cool air wafted against her bare back once he unhooked her bra.
"Wait." Her plea was garbled by their kiss. "Wait."
"What is it?" His eyelids were half lowered, his face flushed. His hard cock pressed against her belly and her body responded with a rush of moisture.
"I have to catch up." She plucked at his shirtfront, only half undone while she was nearly naked.
"Barrett." His tone was gentle. "We're in this together. It's not a competition." His expression lit with tenderness and even a bit of humor.
He was right. They were in this together. She didn't need to worry about keeping the upper hand or staying in control. Now, with him, she could just…
"Let go," he murmured, drawing her close again. "Can you?"
About Nona Raines
Nona Raines became hooked on romances when she first picked up “The Flame and the Flower” by Kathleen Woodiwiss (and she’s not telling how long ago that was). Romances may have changed since then, but her love for a good love story has not. She’s been writing off and on for years, but it was only when she joined the Central New York Romance Writers Association that she finally gained the support and confidence she needed to complete a manuscript. Nona lives in upstate New York with her many pets and is currently working on her next novel. A former librarian, she enjoys reading books of all genres and discussing them with others. She is thrilled to finally be able to call herself an author.