Dirty wicked, p.8
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       Dirty Wicked, p.8
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         Part #11.5 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
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  In other words, so could an insensitive idiot. Nick would love to apologize. But if she softened toward him, that could be dangerous. Him in her pants was the last thing Mike would have wanted, and Nick knew he was bad for Sasha. She deserved a man who could provide the best of everything, would love her gently, and didn’t have a record he could never shake.

  Nick took the bottle and repeated everything she’d done through the remaining sections of her hair. By the time he was squeezing air from the bottle, she was already mixing up the next and shoving it into his hands.

  “Work this through to the ends.” She plucked up the shower cap from the little display of toiletries next to the sink. “Then I’ll wrap it up for twenty minutes.”

  He nodded, working the rest of the gooey mixture into her strands until they were glossy and drenched. Normally, he’d take any opportunity to put his hands in her hair but this crap smelled somewhere between nasty and toxic. He was glad this would wash out in twenty-eight shampoos.

  “Good enough,” she declared as she snapped on the plastic shower cap. “Set a timer, please. Knock on the bathroom door when twenty minutes have passed.”

  The second he agreed, she grabbed her duffel and shoved him out. Moments later, he heard the shower running.

  At the twenty-minute mark, he pounded on the door but the water still ran for another ten.

  Another thirty minutes after that, Nick was glancing at his watch, wondering what the hell she was doing in there. Suddenly, she opened the door.

  His jaw dropped.

  She looked delicate and ethereal as a blonde. As a brunette, her eyes sparkled green, her skin glowed, and he’d have sworn she was one of the sexiest women he’d met in his fucking life. She’d applied the makeup with a light hand and dried her hair into an easy, tousled style.

  Nick would bet twenty bucks Mike would never recognize this woman.

  “Holy shit,” he murmured.

  She peered at herself in the mirror. “I’ve never been anything but a blonde. But I don’t hate this color.”

  Clearly, that surprised her.

  “It’s—wow. You’re beautiful. Then again, you’d look pretty if you were bald and wearing a garbage sack.”

  Sasha turned to him, hand on her hip. “I don’t understand you. One minute, you’re supportive, helpful, protective. The next you’re an absolute bastard. Then you flip-flop again. When you say things like that… Are you just trying to confuse me?”

  He could say yes. He could lie to her. But he saw the hurt on her face, the confusion. She’d been through so much, and the last thing she needed to be worrying about now was what the hell he thought or wanted or felt. And all right, he didn’t like having her pissed off at him.

  “The truth?”

  She nodded. “That would be great.”

  “We’re all better off if you don’t like me. I have nothing for you but a stiff cock, and if Mike were here he’d do his best to beat my ass. I want you like hell. I always have, but it’s easier if you hate me. Now that the jig is up, I’ll stop being an asshole if you…” What? Try not to look so damn fuckable? It was up to him to control himself, not up to her to worry about his lust. “Keep your distance.”

  “And the sex I owe you for your ‘fee?’”

  Sure, he’d love that but… “Forget it. I would have helped you, regardless. It’s the least I owed Mike for being a good friend. And I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you and Harper have a safe, happy life.”

  Sasha cocked her head at him, looking both relieved and confused. “So…everything you said that night I arrived?”

  He closed his eyes. “I questioned you about my loyalties to make you think. I didn’t expect you to run from me. When I tackled you and got you under me…I wanted you too much to hide it for long. I knew you were afraid of me. I used my rape conviction to scare the shit out of you. Sorry. I should have just told you that unless you were looking for a lover, you shouldn’t get too close to me. If you do, I’ll seduce you.”

  “Because you just got out of prison and want an easy conquest.” She sighed. “I feel so stupid.”

  “That’s not entirely false. But it wouldn’t be the whole truth, either.” He tapped his thumb against his thigh, wondering how honest to be. Finally, he realized that besides not wanting to add to her stress, he hated her hating him. “The first time I saw you, you were sitting on that enclosed porch along the back of your house at dusk. Through the windows, I saw the sun light you up with a golden glow as you breastfed Harper, looking so peaceful. You were the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. But there was something more about you. I saw your spirit. Your essence. Whatever you want to call it. You oozed kindness and goodness and an innocence that neither marriage nor childbirth could change. I wanted you—and I couldn’t stop. I wanted to pleasure you, corrupt you, bask in you. I wanted to absorb whatever made you special. I wanted to learn to be better for you. I still do, and I’m probably doomed to failure. I knew then that if I hung around, my urge to claim you could zip past my friendship with Mike and wear down my self-control. I’m still sure that’s true. But now that he’s gone, the only thing stopping me is you.”

  Sasha looked dazed. “So you’ve just been pushing me away?”

  When she looked as if she was really seeing him for the first time, he shrugged. “I’m good at being an asshole, so it came naturally.”

  “Last night, if I had asked you to make love to me…?”

  “I’d still be deep inside you. Mike would be cursing me from above, and you’d hate yourself later. So let’s drop it. Let’s find Mike’s evidence and get it into the right hands. Then your nightmare will be over.”

  Nick packed up all his gear, watching as she did the same. He was aware that she hadn’t stopped staring at him. Shit. No matter how much he jacked off, she still made him hard. No matter how much he told himself not to look at her, every time he did, his heart flipped over. He’d lived for years off his gut instinct. It told him to go after her. But logic told him his instinct needed to shut the hell up.

  “Done?” he asked as he zipped the last of his things into his backpack.

  She closed her duffel. “Yes. Do you really think we’ll find Mike’s evidence? I have no idea what this key fits into.”

  At least she wasn’t talking about his diarrhea of the mouth anymore. “That part is stumping me, too. I don’t remember anything with a lock at the bandstand. Maybe he buried something. We’ll look for whatever it is. Based on the size of the key, it’s small.”

  “What happens if we don’t find it?”

  “We’ll keep looking, and I’ll make sure you and Harper stay safe.” And he’d find new, creative ways to maintain distance between them or she’d wind up in his bed. “I’m not letting you die and I’m not giving up my revenge. You can bet on that.”

  She nodded solemnly.

  He carried their bags to the SUV. She followed. The sun rose high. The warmth thinned as November pressed on. It would be Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks. It had never been his favorite time of year since an absent father and an overworked single mother trying to make ends meet in the ’hood hadn’t left him much to be thankful for. Ditto for prison. Shit, he sounded like he was having a fucking pity party. He needed to put on his big-boy drawers and be grateful that Sasha had come to him for help. Getting revenge would make him damn thankful this year. So would letting her get on with a pretty, peaceful life.

  They fell quiet as he dodged traffic toward the park. He donned his cap and slid the sunglasses on his face. She followed suit with her shades.

  As disguises went, theirs were rudimentary—the best he could come up with on the fly. But this jaunt through the park should last a handful of minutes, so they didn’t have to stay disguised very well or for very long.

  Nick glanced her way. Her now-dark hair slid in silky waves over her shoulders, the sunlight catching the rich coffee skeins. She looked both bolder and somehow more delicate with the contrast of her dark hair
against her fair skin.

  He wanted her. Then again, he always did. He had to stop fixating and get practical.

  After a drive-thru breakfast, they finally pulled onto Dreyfous Drive and took the winding road adjacent to the Museum of Art. They passed in front of the coffeehouse and parked in a spot closer to the bandstand.

  As soon as they got out of the SUV, the wind picked up. The temperature had dropped discernably in the last thirty minutes. Cloud cover moved in. Winter weather was coming earlier than usual.

  A quick glance told Nick that not many people lingered near the bandstand. The few moms pushing strollers were leaving before the chill got worse.

  When Sasha shut her door, he locked the car and dragged in a bracing breath. Time to bring to light the evidence Mike had given his life to hide.

  He headed to the walkway on the far side of the bandstand, away from the coffeehouse and the few people sitting at the tables with red umbrellas, clutching their hot brew and hurriedly eating beignets. Sasha followed, and he grabbed her hand, holding it in his. She gripped him like she was nervous.

  “Relax. We’re a couple out for a stroll. You’ve got the key around your neck?”

  “Always.” She breathed out, clearly searching for calm. “It’s so different to be here now. The day I took my bridal pictures, it was spring. Sunny. Warm. It seemed like such a happy place. I remember being thrilled they had restored the bandstand so beautifully after Katrina. Today this place looks…ominous.”

  “Because you feel like you’re being watched?”

  “Yes.”

  Nick did, too. Maybe it was paranoia. No one seemed to be paying them any particular mind. A few stragglers loitered, some packing up lawn chairs since the day didn’t look as promising as it had earlier. Joggers picked up pace to escape the wind as it kicked harder. More mothers with strollers disappeared to the parking lot. A photographer with a model wearing a decidedly springlike dress twirled in the wind, her teeth beginning to chatter. After another few shots, he tucked his equipment away and they left.

  Sasha huddled close to Nick for warmth. “What do we do?”

  They approached the bandstand. He wrapped an arm around her. To anyone else, he would appear a concerned lover shielding his woman from the cold. He took advantage of the pose and bent to her ear. “We look around for anything that might fit the key Mike left you.”

  She peered up as if glimpsing the bandstand for the first time. “I don’t see anything at the top or bottom of the columns with a lock. Nothing in the roof structure. But they run electrical here.”

  He nodded. “At the bottom of the dome. It lights up at night.”

  “So there’s an electrical box somewhere.”

  “Yep. I also see metal trash cans around the perimeter. And a bench over there.”

  “Yes. Mike could also have hidden something in the bushes. Or like you said, buried it.”

  True. “Any of those possibilities seem more likely to you? Some choice Mike might have gravitated to more than another?”

  Sasha paused, studying the area again. “If he was protecting something under lock and key, I’m going to guess he was also shielding it from the elements and prying eyes. The bench is too open from beneath. Anyone picnicking or lying on the grass to dream up cloud formations could look over and see the underside.”

  “Yeah. And the trash cans get too much attention.”

  “From people using and emptying them. I agree. And the bushes would probably get trimmed too often to hide anything.”

  “Agreed. Katrina should have proven that burying anything in a swampy city below sea level is a bad idea,” he drawled.

  “When you put it like that, Mike wouldn’t have buried whatever it is. I wasn’t here when the hurricane hit, but Mike was devastated by all the damage. He loved this city.”

  “He did.”

  Mike had grown up in the best parts of the Big Easy. Nick had been intimately familiar with the worst and he’d hated it at times. But he couldn’t deny it had given him good friends and a colorful adolescence. It had beat the hell out of spending every winter in the Jersey chill.

  A passing jogger slowed as he approached the bandstand, seemingly to catch his breath. As he braced on his knees and dragged in air, he clapped eyes on them. Nick didn’t know if the guy was simply staring at Sasha or up to no good. Either way, he wasn’t taking chances. He lifted her chin and smiled her way. “We’re being watched. Act like I’ve said something that makes you happy.”

  She lifted her lashes and met his stare. A grin flirted with her lips but her gaze looked so somber. “Do you think there’s any chance we’re going to succeed?”

  “I’m betting my life on it.” Yours and Harper’s, too.

  Her grin lifted into a warm smile, transforming her. Yeah, she was acting. But when the sun broke from the clouds to slant golden rays across her face, lighting her with a glow, her goodness shined through. She was a good mother. She’d been a good wife. She worked hard to be a good person. He’d bet she prided herself on that. Any man would be lucky to have Sasha. Hell, he’d count himself the most blessed man on the planet to spend even one night as her man.

  He’d do anything to give her the chance to brighten the world for a lifetime.

  Nick knew he should…but he couldn’t resist the urge to dip his head and fit his lips across Sasha’s, kissing her softly. He breathed her in. Gentle, delicately floral…with a bit of something spicy. Just like her.

  When she might have pulled away, he cradled her face in both hands and stilled her. “A couple in love.”

  At his reminder, she stiffened. Ignoring that, he layered his mouth over hers again and caressed her face.

  Little by little, she lost her starch, her posture softening, her lips gradually molding to his. Then he urged her open for him. Nick would have sworn he heard a soft female moan. Maybe it had been the wind. Or his wishful thinking. Either way, he swept inside and kissed her thoroughly until she clung to his shoulders and her breathing wasn’t quite steady.

  Only then did he pull back. “That’s what I had in mind.”

  Her cheeks were rosy. “That was more kiss than necessary.”

  Nick checked the surrounding park. “Maybe not. The staring jogger is gone. So is most everyone else. Let’s work fast.”

  “I’ll explore the periphery, see if anything else seems worth searching.”

  “Do it like you’re taking a stroll,” he warned.

  Sasha nodded. “I’ll act wide-eyed and excited to be here.”

  Like it was her first trip. “Good. I’ll keep an eye on you as I check out some of the fixed objects with passing curiosity.”

  As she unclasped her fingers from his with unhurried steps, his hand lingered. Truth was, he didn’t want to stop touching her. And letting her out of his range bugged the control freak in him. But working fast and smart would do far more to make Sasha safe than refusing to let go.

  Even after the last of his fingertips glided over her palm, he felt her touch burn through him as he strolled around the bandstand. Sasha wrapped her arms around herself as if she wished she had a coat—or needed his warmth.

  Nick studied the stone steps, walked up, paced across the floor of the stone dome, then back down the other side. The electrical box stood maybe ten feet away.

  When he reached it, he glanced down. Sure enough, the oblong gray panel had a door on the front, secured by a small lock. Nothing else he could see nearby opened with a key.

  “Hey,” he called out when Sasha drifted toward a nearby trash can. He held out his hand to her, and she strolled closer. “Did Mike have any friends who worked for the city? Someone who might have given him a key to this box?”

  “We had a neighbor whose wife worked for the city. She and Mike talked fairly often about sites they loved and what it was like to work for local government. In fact, I think she worked for the city’s parks and parkways department.”

  “Come here.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her towar
d him. Their bodies collided. He dipped his head again, trying not to get lost in her sweetness as he unfastened the chain from her neck and let the key slide into his palm. Regretfully, he pulled away. “Let’s see if your key fits this lock.”

  She sent a sideways glance at the panel. “Could we really have found it already?”

  He shrugged. “It makes sense. I don’t think Mike meant the search to be hard.”

  “But it was. He stumped me.”

  “He didn’t explain everything because he didn’t intend for you to dive into this dangerous shit alone.”

 
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