MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“You are not seriously going to take a book back to that stripper you met?”
Ginger rolled her eyes and kept a firm grip on the book in her hands. Karen was making a half-hearted grab for it, then glared in reprimand when Ginger refused to relinquish it, but there was a gleam of envy in her eyes, too. A very knowing one from years of being cohorts in misadventures.
“Yes I am,” Ginger confirmed. “A promise is a promise. I’m keeping it.”
Karen fluttered her eyelashes. “I really hate you right now.”
“I know,” Ginger replied as the elevator reached the lobby of their hotel. There was a chime before the doors slid open. She strode out of the car with a confidence she didn’t get to indulge in as often as she liked. Karen was grumbling. From long years spent together devoted mostly to indulging in their passion for mayhem, Ginger knew what the root of her friend’s distemper was.
“Sorry, Karen, but you”—Ginger pointed at her friend—“have a lovely panel to do on something really important.”
“Really boring, you mean,” Karen mumbled under her breath as they walked past other people attending the same conference. “Why did we become librarians?”
“I’m just nosy,” Ginger responded. “Next thing I knew, I had enough credits to graduate and start doing that ‘adult’ thing. Now I get paid to read through people’s details.”
Karen snorted at her. “Yeah, research. It’s not snooping. Honestly. And there’s another thing, why did you manage to snag the position with the State?”
“Like I said, I’m nosy and CPS needs to know the dirt on people.” Ginger held up three fingers in the Scout salute. “It is my job after all.”
“You were never a Girl Scout,” Karen accused her softly.
“Cause that cookie selling shit is boring,” Ginger responded. “And the boys wouldn’t let me into their troop.”
“The scoutmaster was scared of your mom,” Karen was pressing her lips together to keep her snickers from carrying across the lobby.
“I’m still scared of my mom, but threatening to call her won’t stop me,” Ginger said before she tapped the book nestled in her cross-body bag. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me from taking this book to Kitten.”
“Fine,” Karen was trailing her through the lobby, past the bar and toward the large revolving doors that led to the entrance of the hotel. “I’ll look forward to living vicariously through your stories of adventure.”
Now that they were outside, Ginger shot Karen a look her friend knew well. It produced a glitter of anticipation in Karen’s eyes.
“Vicariously my ass,” Ginger said. “I’ll go scout the area and we’ll have some fun tonight. We can sleep on the plane home.”
Karen grinned. “The conference might be boring, but it’s in New Orleans.” She cast a look out toward the street, longing on her face. “Which makes up for a lot of stupid panels. I really hate you for being done first.”
“Text me,” Ginger said as she took off toward the sidewalk.
It led the way to Bourbon Street. Ginger smiled like a kid embarking on Halloween trick-or-treating. There was a vibe in the air, pulsing through her body and putting a spring in her step.
Adventure was calling her name, which meant she needed to ditch her librarian attire.
There was a muggy warmth to New Orleans that made it permissible to take some layers off. It was like a gate unlocking or something, because Ginger shrugged out of her sweater and hung it through the shoulder strap of her cross body bag. She was dressed like a professional librarian in deference to doing the “adult thing” and earning a living. Seriously, some people had such a hang-up when it came to the human body. Her wool blazer was completely ill-suited to the environment. Leaving it all behind in the huge, air conditioned hotel gave her a huge shot of relief that was ever-so-welcome. It was like someone had taken a concrete block off her chest because she was finally able to breathe.
She was going to savor every last moment of freedom, too. After all, she might have to toe the line during work hours, but there was no way she was going to sit around in a lobby when Bourbon Street was a couple of hundred yards away.
The mixture of people on the sidewalk was vivid and amazing to see; the colors, the smells floating around from the restaurants, the music drifting out from countless bands playing in the bars. Her brain was on overload, in that crazy, gut wrenching tingle down her spine to her toes way.
Fricking awesome …
She turned into a little boutique. A bell rang as she pushed the door in, a charming little old-world detail that made Ginger smile.
“Can I help you?” The woman had the New Orleans drawl in her voice. She was sitting behind a counter with a huge tabby cat in her lap. The animal looked at her with one blue eye and one brown one but didn’t seem to think Ginger was important enough to leave the petting the lady was giving it. The shop was filled with the sound of its purring.
“Yes,” Ginger said. “I was hoping to find an outfit a little more suited to this climate.”
The woman flashed her a smile that revealed two gold-crowned teeth. She picked the cat up and deposited it on the counter where it turned around in a circle before settling down to watch with a twitch of its tail. “Come here, we’ll get you fixed up.”
* * *
“She goes by the name of Kitten.” Captain Bram Magnus held his phone out for Special Agent Saxon Hale. “Word is, she pulls in the contacts the Raven wants to see. Poses as a stripper on the street while she’s on the lookout for her boss.”
“That makes sense. Tells me more about why no one sees the Raven’s face and still, he runs a major underground empire,” Saxon Hale answered.
He considered the street in front of him. The French Quarter never seemed to go completely quiet. Maybe the day after Fat Tuesday, but that would be about it. There were still people roaming down Bourbon Street, mostly tourists and escapees from work conventions intent on stealing a little time away from marketing seminars. They milled around with ties stuck in their pockets in an effort to unwind.
Saxon was looking for the locals, those who did their work under the cover of darkness and behind the shield of the public. He’d followed his tips there, but the residents of the community were tight-lipped.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first case he’d cracked through persistence. Just because no one admitted to ever setting eyes on the underworld figure known as the Raven, didn’t mean he was leaving before he had the guy in cuffs and the evidence to keep him locked up. But that wasn’t all. No, he had a personal reason to be there, and it all centered on the photos Bram’s team had captured of one former Special Agent Tyler Martin.
Tyler Martin was someone Saxon was very interested in taking down before Tyler took another shot at Saxon or his brother. Bram was there for the same reasons. Tyler was a rogue, one who didn’t care who he sold out, so long as it got him what he wanted. He was a traitor, the worst kind because Saxon had once called him a superior among the Shadow opps teams.
“When Kitten pops her head up, well see what she does tonight.” Saxon replied. “And just what part Tyler Martin has in it.”
“You can bet it won’t be pretty,” Bram answered. “I’ve got surveillance on her taking three of the most recent victims into various bars but since half the bar owners around here swear she’s one of their strippers…”
“It proves nothing,” Saxon confirmed. “Except that the Raven should have used another girl because now we have a reason to follow this one.”
“There’s one major problem with being a bad guy,” Bram answered. “You need to throw us good guys off your scent, while keeping the number of people you work with at a minimum so you can maintain that ever-so-important secret identity.”
“Yeah,” Saxon agreed. “Guess it’s a good thing we’re the good guys.”
Bram nodded, keeping his eyes moving as well. He was a seasoned man, one who knew death only needed one little opportunity to turn an agent into a fallen hero. It was the reason they were there, risking their necks to seal up a leak that had taken down men on both their teams. Whoever the Raven was, his reach went deep into the black-market world as well as all the way to the White House. The reason was money. It made the world go round.
Time passed. Saxon kept his eyes moving. Bram shifted, taking up a new position that allowed them to have different viewpoints.
Yeah, that’s what they were, and it meant that they spent a lot of time waiting for the bad guys to pop up out of the gutter while making sure no one noticed them.
Saxon took a sip from his beer bottle. He was using the beer as a reason to remain in the area, watching to see who went down the alley. Their source was dead, a Russian who had gone by the name of Pratt. He’d been the Raven’s right-hand man, and the number of bodies showing up said whoever the new man was, he was cleaning house. It was the chance to catch the Raven red-handed. While the blood was flowing. It was a gruesome aspect of his job, one he shouldered because it made the world a better place. Shadow opps teams took the assignments no one else wanted.
Across the way, their backup team was seated in a restaurant. Dare Servant had been working the case for a solid two months without so much as a bread crumb. Then Saxon’s brother Vitus had hauled in the catch in the form of Congressman Ryland’s daughter Damascus being held in one of the buildings behind the famed Bourbon Street. It wasn’t the first time cases had overlapped, and Saxon intended to take full advantage of it.
Now, he just needed the sun to set so Kitten would come out to ply her trade.
* * *
“Now, you look like an ’Orleans lady.”
Ginger turned to look at herself in a vintage oval-shaped dressing mirror. The wood finish was cracked, giving the thing character. The top of the dress was gathered up into a band that tied in back of her neck, the fabric falling in loose waves over her breasts to where a waist band gave her shape. As she moved, the skirt of the dress twirled up to give off a flash of her thighs. With a saucy smile, the woman had given her a pair of boy shorts to wear under it. When she turned faster, the edge of those boy shorts came into sight, so it wasn’t completely indecent and really sort of sexy.
Her father would collapse if he saw her in it, but she was kind of certain her mother would laugh.
Fine, that means you’re buying it. Spicy.
Besides, her parents were Ying and Yang. Honestly, giving them something to debate was just a little gift to help them find a reason to make up afterward.
You’re so wicked …
She was, and unrepentant at that. Ginger dug into her purse and found her bank card. She gained another glimpse at the gold crowns before the woman rang up the sale. “I’ll send your clothes up to your hotel. Just write the room number.”
“Send your friends to see me,” the woman encouraged her with a twinkle in her dark eyes.
The bell rang again when she opened the door. The cat took the opportunity to jump back into its owner’s lap, a loud purring starting up behind her before Ginger stepped out onto the street and the door closed behind her.
The dress was a lot more comfortable in the balmy air. It took only a moment for Ginger to adjust to the strappy sandals the woman insisted went with the dress. The two inch heels gave her hips a sway that made her cheeks heat.
With excitement …
Anticipation was making her giddy. She passed by a restaurant that smelled amazing, deciding to wait for Karen before she ate. Up ahead, the doorways were filling up as dancers tried to pull people in from the streets to fill their bars. She contemplated her options and decided on business first.
She looked down at the book in her hands. It was a signed copy of The Silenced by Heather Graham. She’d stood in line for three hours to get it, and there was no way she wasn’t going to deliver it. Okay, maybe the real reason she’d promised to bring it back was to have a reason to venture away from her professional venue tonight. But if Ginger was being completely honest, she needed to admit that there was something mysterious about Kitten, and, as Ginger had told Karen, she was nosy by nature.
A fatal flaw perhaps. Tonight though, it felt pretty damned fun.
Yup. Guilty as charged.
Ginger considered the bars ahead of her, they all ran together in a bright, music-pumping tapestry. She racked her memory, trying to recall exactly where she’d encountered Kitten.
She had beautiful mocha skin with black eyes that looked as deep as the night. “Stripper” wasn’t the right word for what Kitten did. No, her motions were too erotic, too hypnotic for such a cheap label. She was like a burlesque dancer from the thirties, a woman who captivated her audience as she teased them and used skill to titillate. The ease that she embodied as she danced made Ginger envious. To be so comfortable in your own skin, it was something she admired and longed for.
Bet she knew how to have great sex.
Ginger felt the teasing heat of a blush but didn’t chastise herself for her scarlet thoughts.
She was serious.
Sex, well, at least the sex she’d had was sort of awkward. It could be fun except Ginger realized that she lacked the confidence in her body that someone like Kitten displayed in spades. That firm, unwavering belief that every part of her was just the way it was meant to be and nothing could distract from the moment when she pressed herself against another person.
Yeah, she was totally envious as well as determined to cultivate some of the same sense of being in herself. No, she wasn’t going on some sex binge, just making sure she was ready when she ran into a guy she wanted to get naked with.
Ginger looked through the open doors of the bar nearest her, but the girl working on the pole was Caucasian. She moved a little farther down, peeking in doorways as she laughed over the fact that she was looking for an erotic dancer.
One more little thing that would give her father a fit.
Poor daddy, she did love him, but he was so straightlaced. She just couldn’t help but tease him a little, at least in her thoughts. Peter Boyce was a respected member of his community. His daughter shouldn’t be walking down Bourbon Street looking for a dancer named Kitten. But hey, what daddy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. In two days, she’d be back in her economy coach airline seat, bound for normality. Sure, she knew that playing on the dangerous side was bound to blow up in her face, but she just couldn’t resist flirting a little with it while she had the opportunity.
Living in the moment.
“What you looking for honey?”
A bartender in a striped vest and sporting a perfectly trimmed mustache was leaning against the doorframe of the next bar she came to. He had a black hat tipped down on one side of his forehead, making him look perfectly at home.
“I’m looking for Kitten,” Ginger said working to make her voice husky. “She’s expecting me.”
The man’s expression changed, hardening a little, even if his lips remained in a small grin. He racked her from top to bottom, his lips splitting to give her a glimpse of his teeth. She felt assessed, in a purely carnal way. It was blunt and a touch seedy but she’d be lying if she didn’t admit to being just a bit buzzed by the knowledge that she measured up. The glint that appeared in the bartender’s eyes told her that much.
“Right then. Go on back, past the kitchen, keep going across the alley and into the next place. Kitten is working a private party. Tell the doorman she’s looking for you.”
“Perfect,” Ginger said as she stepped up into the bar. There was a definite contact with her bottom and a slight squeeze as she passed the guy, making her close her lips to keep from snorting at him. She heard him chuckle and ordered herself to keep moving. Sure, she should have taken issue with him for touching, but there was something about the setting that seemed to make it fit. She’d think about how inappropriate it was later.
The place was full of pub style tables. A few of the men turned as she walked between their stools. Clearly looking at her … assets. It fit with her idea of the evening … adventure first, lamentations and common sense in the morning.
Worry when they stop looking, girl.
Ginger let her hips settle into a sway that made her feel as sensuous as she’d decided Kitten had looked the night before. It was natural and exciting and a real fricking relief to be free. She felt like she was always stuffing herself into a tin can to please those around her or at least those who controlled her income.
Sometimes, she wanted to be wicked.
The fabric of the skirt swished over her thighs, teasing the receptors in her skin and making her feel like a woman more keenly than she’d allowed herself to feel for a long time.
It was going to be a night to remember.
* * *
“What the fuck?” Saxon mumbled. Bram looked up and made a sound under his breath.
“Just another—” It took Bram a moment to see what Saxon had. “Uh … yeah, that’s bad. Except, the doorman just let her in.”
Saxon’s eyebrows lowered. He actually blinked and looked at his drink, but there was only a small amount missing from the bottle. Nope, he wasn’t impaired, but his brain felt like it had gone numb.
She didn’t belong there.
That much, he was certain of. It was clearer than anything else he knew in that moment. Hell, it was speeding through his veins, triggering some sort of alarm. He set the beer bottle down without realizing it. He was acting on impulse, a fact that stunned him, on his feet, ready to go after her. Whoever she was, she had a mop of dark brown hair with copper highlights that she’d twisted into a messy knot on the back of her neck. It gave him a great look at the expanse of her nape, and damned if he didn’t want to taste it. He actually took a step toward her because the attraction was so strong. He caught himself in the last second, forcing himself to stop and assess her critically.
That messy knot of hair on her head, it wasn’t the sort of thing most women wore into a bar. There was a touch of function in it, like she’d escaped from someplace she needed to be, while the messy part declared her to be made of something just a little less tamed.
That just made her hotter.
There was a little curve to her lips that matched the excitement shimmering in her eyes. Hell, the look on her face darn near took five years off his life because one good long look and he almost believed in happiness again.
And then he felt like he was kicked in the balls as he watched her walk past the doorman, into what Saxon knew damned well was a nest of underworld thugs. “Oops, excuse me” wasn’t going to keep her from getting a bullet between her eyes. The image of finding her body, seeing those eyes lifeless, made him want to pull his gun free and make sure it didn’t happen. The impulse was so strong, he felt it squeezing everything else out of his brain.
“Whoa.” Bram had reached out to stop him. “What are you doing?”
Saxon brushed Bram’s hand aside with a motion that gained him a grunt from his partner because it was damned sharp and more than a little uncalled for when Saxon factored in that he’d failed to communicate his intentions. They were partners, and jumping into something without clueing your sidekick in was a great, textbook-perfect way to get a flag sent home to his mother. He was practically begging for a case of “DDS.”
Death due to stupidity.
He was an experienced, decorated field agent, but at the moment, he felt a lot like an over-protective brother.
Okay, maybe not a sibling.
That was another red-hot flash that ripped across his brain. There was nothing, and he meant nothing, brotherly about his feelings for her.
That was another fatal mistake—getting personally involved. He had a case to solve and a major underworld player to take down. There was absolutely no room for anything but professionalism.
So why was his brain trying to switch modes on him?
“What got your attention?” Bram prodded him.
“She doesn’t belong here, much less back there.” Saxon was sizing up the doorman. He pulled out his cell and started typing in a text to Dare Servant, but Dare was sending him a text.
Got eyes on Kitten. Saxon turned the phone toward Bram.
The little bit of technology vibrated as a new text came in.
Coming down the alley with a male.
Bram’s eyes narrowed as he made a low sound in the back of his throat. “Looks like it’s time to work.”
Saxon discovered himself torn for the first time. Kitten was an experienced operator. They wouldn’t be getting a second shot at following her, but the sight of the woman going past the doorman was burned into his memory. He couldn’t dismiss her as collateral damage.
He punched in a code.
“Seriously?” Bram asked. “She might be Kitten’s replacement.”
“She’s not.” Saxon answered with more confidence than he’d felt in a long time. “She’s in the wrong place.”
Saxon felt the minutes ticking by. His team was moving, shifting positions for their strike. He was about to blow their cover out of the water.
He ignored the question because the ball was already in play. Good or bad, he’d made his choice, and there was only one thing to do now.
Take a swing …
There was a hoot as one of their female agents climbed up onto a table and started dancing.
“Hope you know what you’re doing.” Bram said before he moved over and blocked the bouncer while looking like he was applauding the agent’s actions.
Saxon kept his attention on the man at the back door. He shook his head but people were holding up their phones now, taping the incident. He abandoned his post against the tide of repercussions that would come down from the city. There had been a time when the French Quarter operated above the law but modern-day politicians minded their reputations these days and the connected generation made that harder than ever with their Tweeting, Facebooking, and Youtubing.
People were spilling in from the street, drawn by the commotion. The doormen were crushed between bodies as two more women jerked their tops off and began scrambling up onto table tops.
Saxon used the opportunity to slip through the back door, hoping he wasn’t already too late.
* * *
There was a whole different feeling in the back of the building. Ginger felt it prickle across the surface of her skin. It was more sultry, definitely on the darker side but not in a bad way. It was an instinctual vibe, one that felt like it was settling into all of her pulse points and triggering a passion for satisfaction of every appetite she had.
A couple of the men in the kitchen looked over as she crossed the doorways. Ginger kept her chin level, feeling the flop of the paperback book against her right hip where her cross-body bag was resting. There was a new feeling prickling across her nerve endings now, one of unexpected victory. Being allowed beyond the tourist areas was like scoring some sort of bonus point in the adventure category. She smiled brighter as she made it to the back door of the restaurant.
The alleyway was an eerie place. She was surrounded by noise, from the bar behind her, Bourbon Street, and the private party in front of her, but it was all muffled and mixed together while she was between the buildings. A stray gust of wind blew down, lifting her skirt and raising goosebumps on her legs. Under the partial moonlight, it was like she could feel the spirits that were rumored to inhabit the French Quarter. Whether or not she believed in ghosts was irrelevant, there was a sensation of life, one that gave her a buzz. It was as if the bricks of the buildings were imprinted with the memories of the eras they’d seen.
Another doorman stepped into her path. She had to tip her head back to make eye contact, and she felt a shiver run down her spine when she did. This man didn’t mess around. He considered her with a hard expression that made the scar running through his lower lip look majorly intimidating.
“Kitten is”—Her voice sounded less confident than she liked. She swallowed as the guy frowned at her—“expecting me.”
There, that was better. Ginger dug deep, connecting with her memory of the way Kitten had looked while dancing, full of confidence and the will to take life by the short hairs. Ginger smiled at the guy. He looked a little doubtful but raked her from head to toe, lingering for just a moment on where the skirt gave him a teasing glimpse of thigh.
“Right … inside.” He waved her past but pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it to her. “You know the rules.”
She was already inside before she got a look at what he’d thrown at her. It was a beauty mask, or maybe nap mask was a better way to describe it, one of those black satin things that completely covered a person’s eyes.
“You lying bitch!”
There was a hard sound, one of flesh hitting flesh.
Ginger looked up, her enjoyment of the moment evaporating instantly.
A man was sprawled on the floor, clearly the recipient of the punch she’d heard connecting with his jaw.
“Kitten knows who she works for. I told her to bring you to me.”
A man came out of the shadows of the room, emerging like some sort of judge. The man on the floor had sat up but he remained on his butt as he raised his open hands wide.
“Look man, I know you’re the boss.” He was clearly pleading, the tone of his voice making Ginger want to gag.
“Hell yeah, everyone does what the Raven wants.”
“Except you,” the Raven said as he leveled a pistol at the man. “You took it upon yourself to order a hit under my authority.”
“Well now … that was for your protection, had to deal with the matter immediately.”
“You mean, before I had a chance to hear Cortman’s side of the story. Now there is only yours.”
The guy had turned ghastly white; Ginger was pretty sure she matched his pallor.
“And you somehow think I am stupid enough to not know what you are about.”
“It won’t happen again,” the guy declared.
There was a single discharge from the gun, one that made Ginger jump. Her attention was on the falling body, the sound of his head hitting the floor, making her want to vomit. The scent of fresh blood filled the air, twisting her insides.
“I know it won’t.”
The guy’s tone was so icy, Ginger sucked in her breath because it chilled her to the bone. Evil had never been a tangible thing in her world until that moment. Now, she was pretty sure she could smell it in the air.
A couple of heads turned as the Raven and his men caught her in their sights. A strange sort of shock went through the room about the same time as Ginger recognized both of them from online photos. Which was really interesting because Marc Grog was supposed to be dead. Very, very, dead. And he so wasn’t.
“What the fuck?”
As the Raven shifted the gun toward her, she turned and ran. It felt like time had slowed down, allowing her to notice how long it took to complete her turn, the way she was lurching away from the men behind her, fighting to push her feet against the floor and launch her body away from the scent of fresh blood.
“Someone get her now!” An order came out of the darkness. “She fucking saw the whole thing!”
Her insides twisted, a warning bell ringing inside her head. She turned the second she got into the alleyway, but the street seemed a million miles away. Still, she had to make a try for it.
She ran straight into another man. Whoever he was, he was far more intimidating with his square cut jaw and hard expression. There was determination glittering in his eyes, and she felt like it might just melt the flesh right off her face because he was downright deadly looking, but in his eyes she saw a difference. One that was as stark as day versus night. There was a flicker of determination in those blue orbs, one that made her want to cling to him.
He yanked a gun out from beneath his suit jacket and reached out to grab her bicep. He yanked her toward him, turning slightly so that she stumbled right past him while he placed himself between her and the men crying out for her blood.
In that instant, he surpassed every other male on the face of the earth.
Her timing was epically off, but that didn’t stop the burst of realization from flashing through her brain.
“Run.” It was a hard command. One edged with authority. She caught a half look behind her as he took up a position of defense, firing off a couple of bullets while backing up toward her.
Ginger took off toward the street, the light and blur of music a promise of life. Once again, she was straining against the pull of evil behind her, ripping every last shred of strength from her flesh in an attempt to reach safety.
To touch life.
Ginger suddenly realized why the bricks of the buildings felt like they held the echoes of spirits. When life was snuffed out violently, the soul didn’t want to move on. She was trying so hard, but every second was a mini eternity that tormented her with her lack of distance from the murder scene. She was going to wake up as a ghost haunting that alley, wondering what the hell had happened.
Her damned heart nearly burst as she heard more popping sounds of gun fire.
“Do exactly as I say if you want to live.”
Ginger was treated to a hard shove right in the middle of her shoulder blades. The strappy sandals twisted when she pitched forward and she tried to get her feet under her. She ended up wobbling like a newborn giraffe, but she’d made it to the edge of the street and out into the crowd of people.
If she wanted to live?
Hell yes …
She surged forward, feeling her unlikely savior joining her.
She bit her lip to keep from crying out. The man came in close, looping his arm across her back so that her temple ended up hitting his shoulder.
She liked him right there.
Hell, she wanted to curl into his embrace and take shelter there against his broad chest.
Epic bad timing …
“This way,” he said but he didn’t wait for her to comply. He locked his hand on her hip and pulled her against his side. A jolt of satisfaction went through her, making her blush. Somehow, her damned sex drive had suddenly kicked into high gear. Shit, the guy even smelled amazingly strong.
“Who … are you?” Ginger wasn’t sure why she was asking. At the moment, it didn’t matter a rat’s ass.
He sent her a glare that let her see that his eyes were blue, a beautiful shade like ocean water in some exotic location like Jamaica. “We’re going to hide in plain sight. It’s our only chance.”
He sounded so dammed confident. She was a hairs’ breath from acting like a startled chicken and darting away from the scene behind her without thinking about where she was going. He, on the other hand, was controlled. She looked into his eyes again and soaked up his steady gaze before he returned to scanning the people around them.
He made her believe she could survive.
It was the solace she needed, filling her with a confidence she hadn’t known she possessed. She was just nursing off of his confidence because it was the only port in a storm.
Ginger turned her head and saw the first doorman. He was poised at the edge of the alleyway talking into his cell phone as he looked at the crowd.
“Get your face out of sight.” Her companion reached right up and captured her neck, pushing her head down without a morsel of concern for how much he was invading her personal space.
Well at the moment, that was small potatoes anyway. She relaxed and looked like she was nuzzling against him.
Damn, he smelled good.
“That won’t do much good if you don’t get her out of those clothes.”
Ginger jumped, losing her balance again when she tried to land on the two-inch-heeled sandals. Her companion snorted as he slid his arm around her and carried her through the next few steps. She looked over at the second man who had slid up beside them. He was flashing a smile and moving with the beat of the band but one look at his eyes and she realized he was as deadly serious as the man she was leaning against.
“Here,” he said as he tugged her elbow.
They were all suddenly slipping into another bar and through the mass of people who were dancing to a different song. It was a little odd to just change beats, like flipping through the shuffled songs on an iPod, but with the songs starting in the middle. It was a stupid thing to notice, too, when there were more important things to deal with.
Her damned brain was still in panicked chicken mode.
Whoever her companions were, they pulled her along, reducing her to feeling like a football being carried through the opposing team. She was insanely grateful because they seemed far more in their element than she was. She ended up in a back room, which smelled of hair spray and coffee. The second man shoved the door shut and flipped the lock. Ginger stared at the deadbolt, realizing just how little comfort it gave her when she coupled it with her memory of how burly the backroom doorman had been.
“Get out of that dress.”
Ginger hugged herself as she turned on the first man because her brain had suddenly decided to stop understanding the most basic English.
He was digging through a rack of clothing, yanking hangers out as he looked at the dresses on them. She realized it was a dressing room of some sort, with a makeup station against the opposite wall. What captured her attention was how in control he was. The gun wasn’t in sight, but she knew he had it. Nothing about being shot at had rattled him.
“Dress off … now.” He turned and spoke in a lower voice. She realized she was staring at him with wide eyes, likely looking about two seconds from fainting.
Get a grip …
She drew in a deep breath but got distracted by her hands and forearms. There was crimson blood splattered on her skin. The metallic scent of it was filling her senses as she tried to process this newest bit of horror.
“Ah…” She mumbled.
“I know. We’ve got to get you out of the Quarter,” he said with a little too much kindness for her pride.
Get a fucking grip!
“Someone will notice that fresh blood on you, and I need the dress for evidence.”
“Right,” she succeeded in answering him.
Maybe it was the tone of his voice or the expression on his face. She didn’t know, and it didn’t much matter. Her insides knotted as she felt like a rope was tightening around her neck and the need to run was darn near overwhelming, but conversing with him brought her out of chicken mode and back into being a human with reasoning powers.
“Evidence?” she questioned as she reached up to work on the collar of the dress.
“Yes. You’re a witness.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” Three words had never been so hard to produce.
There was a flicker of approval in those blue eyes before he reached out and cupped her bare shoulder to turn her around. Something new went blistering across her skin. Some sort of reaction to the contact between their bare skin.
It was so intense, it curled her toes.
He grabbed the top of her zipper and pulled it down.
“Who are you?” Her voice was a squeak again, but at least she’d managed to get her tongue to work.
“Oh…” It was an expression of relief. She turned around to look at him, earning a scowl as he lost the zipper tab while it was only halfway down her body. “Where is your badge?”
It appeared to be her night for asking stupid questions, but his expression made it clear that he agreed with her thought process.
“I’m undercover,” he answered with a tone that made it clear he felt she needed to get her priorities in line. His partner finished unzipping her.
Ginger clasped her arms around herself again, trapping her dress against her skin and feeling unbearably exposed with the back of it open to the night air. She was suddenly trembling, jerking her attention toward the door. Why? She honestly didn’t fucking know. Somehow, she’d turned into a bundle of impulses that she was just acting on while her brain took a snooze and left her at the mercy of the circumstances she was drowning in.
“Get a grip” had never held more meaning.
The first man rolled his eyes, clearly frustrated with her. “I’m Saxon Hale, and I’ll get you my badge as soon as possible. Right now, the Raven’s men are getting the word out to find you and in case you missed it, kill you.”
“I got that part,” she replied. “Sorry, my brain isn’t working.”
“It’s shock. Listen to me, follow my lead. Don’t try to think it through, just do it. One action at a time.”
It really wouldn’t be hard. He had a deep tone that was so full of authority, falling into line was easy. Ginger let her dress go. It slithered down her body, leaving her in a bra and boy shorts.
Saxon actually averted his gaze as he handed over another dress. It was a tiny thing, but she grasped onto it, allowing herself to think of him as a decent guy while she pulled the new dress over her head and down her body. He held her old dress up by two fingertips and lifted it high while his partner held a bag open for him to drop it into.
“That should do it,” the second man said with a heavy dose of satisfaction. He knotted the top of the plastic bag. “Some hard evidence at last.”
The new dress was a soft jersey that clung to her curves more. Saxon returned his full attention to her.
“Do something else with your hair.” He pointed at the makeup table. “And use some of that face paint.”
It was something to do and she needed action instead of being at the mercy of her racing thoughts. Ginger pulled the pins out of her hair and looked at what the table offered. She settled for using dark eyeliner and lots of mascara. She pulled several makeup remover cloths out of a tub and wiped the blood off her arms. It didn’t come off easily but smeared in bright streaks that made her belly heave.
Remember that grip? Better hold on tighter.
Or maybe better advice was to take her lead from her companions. Saxon Hale was in complete control. Sure, finding him sexy was misplaced, but it sort of took second place to keeping her head and staying alive
So she let herself soak up the details of the man. He was built. B-U-I-L-T. Shoulders to drool over, trim waist line, which promised cut abs, and when he turned around, his jeans gave her a peek at a very nice ass. Bundle that all together with the adorable way he’d looked away while she was in her underwear, and he was undeniably the most amazing male she’d ever come face to face with outside the pages of a book.
But he was dangerous.
Only she found that trait to be another point in his favor because he was suited to his role as a special agent. Part of her recoiled from that idea. The logical portion of her brain knew he was playing a dangerous game in his chosen profession. There in her gray matter was the fact of how many law-enforcement officers died in the line of duty. Those statistics and facts that she’d seen printed on a screen suddenly took on a very real meaning.
Along with the sharp slap of reality that came with acknowledging just how helpless she was without him. He was her only line of defense.
Copyright © 2017 by Dawn Ryder
Excerpt from Take to the Limit Copyright © 2017 by Dawn Ryder