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by J.R. Ward
October 2009

“She wants you.”

Jim Heron lifted his eyes from his Budweiser. Across the crowded, dim club, past bodies that were clad in black and hung with chains, through the thick air of sex and desperation, he saw the she in question.

A woman in a blue dress stood beneath one of the few ceiling lights in the Iron Mask, the golden glow floating down over her Brooke Shields brown hair and her ivory skin and her banging body. She was a revelation, a standout slice of color among all the gloomy, neo-Victorian Prozac candidates, as beautiful as a model, as resplendent as a saint.

And she was staring at him, though he questioned the wanting part: Her eyes were set deep, which meant as she looked over, the yearning that stalled out his lungs could just be a product of the way her skull was built.

Hell, maybe she was simply wondering what he was doing in the club. Which made two of them.

“I’m telling you, that woman wants you, buddy.”

Jim glanced over at Mr. Matchmaker. Adrian Vogel was the reason he’d ended up here, and the Iron Mask was definitely the guy’s scene: Ad was dressed in black from head to toe and had piercings in places most people didn’t want needles anywhere around.

“Nah.” Jim took another swig of his Bud. “Not her type.”

“You sure about that.”


“You’re a fool.” Adrian dragged a hand through the black waves on his head and the stuff eased back into place like it had been trained well. Christ, if it weren’t for the fact that he worked construction and had a mouth like a sailor, you’d wonder whether he trolled the women’s mousse and spray aisles.

Eddie Blackhawk, the other guy with them, shook his head. “If he’s not interested, that doesn’t make him foolish.”

“Says you.”

“Live and let live, Adrian. It’s better for everyone.”

As the guy eased back on the velvet couch, Eddie was more Biker than Goth in his jeans and shitkickers, so he looked as out of place as Jim did—although given the hulking size of the guy and those weird-ass red-brown eyes of his, it was hard to imagine him fitting in with anyone but a bunch of pro wrestlers: even with his hair in that long braid, nobody razzed him at the construction site—not even the meathead roofers who had the biggest mouths.

“So, Jim, you don’t talk much.” Adrian scanned the crowd, no doubt looking for a Blue Dress of his own. After focusing on the dancers who writhed in iron cages, he flagged their waitress’s attention. “And after working with you for a month, I know it’s not because you’re stupid.”

“Don’t have a lot to say.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Eddie murmured.

This was probably why Jim liked Eddie better. The SOB was another member of the Spare Club for Men, a guy who never used a word when a nod or a shake of the head could get his point across. How he’d gotten so tight with Adrian, whose mouth had no neutral on its stick shift, was a mystery.

How he roomed with the fucker was inexplicable.

Whatever. Jim had no intention of going into all their hows, whys and wheres. It was nothing personal. They were actually the kind of hardheaded smart-asses he would have been friends with in another time, on another planet, but here and now, their shit was none of his business—and he’d only gone out with them because Adrian had threatened to keep asking until he did.

Bottom line, Jim lived life by the code of the disconnected and expected other people to leave him to his I-am-an-island routine. Since getting out of the military, he’d been vagabonding it, ending up in Caldwell only because it was where he’d stopped driving—and he was going to hit the road after the project they were all working on was finished.

The thing was, given his old boss, it was better to stay a moving target. No telling how long it was going to be before a “special assignment” popped up and Jim got tagged again.

Finishing off his beer, he figured it was a good thing he owned only his clothes, his truck, and that broken-down Harley. Sure, he didn’t have much to show for being thirty-nine—

Oh, man . . . the date.

He was forty. Tonight was his birthday.

“So I gotta know,” Adrian said, leaning in. “You have a woman, Jim? That why you’re not picking up Blue Dress? I mean, come on, she’s smokin’ hot.”

“Looks aren’t everything.”

“Yeah, well, they sure as hell don’t hurt.”

The waitress came over, and while the others ordered another round, Jim shot a glance at the woman they were jawing about.

She didn’t look away. Didn’t flinch. Just slowly licked her red lips like she’d been waiting for him to make eye contact again.

Jim refocused on his empty Bud and shifted in the booth, feeling like someone had slipped lit coals into his shorts. It had been a long, long time for him. Not a dry spell, not even a drought. Sahara Desert was more like it.

And what do you know, his body was ready to end that stretch of nuthin’ but left-handers.
“You should go over there,” Adrian said. “Introduce yourself.”

“I’m cool where I am.”

“Which means I may have to reassess your intelligence.” Adrian drummed his fingers on the table, the heavy silver ring he wore flashing. “Or at least your sex drive.”

“Be my guest.”

Adrian rolled his eyes, clearly getting the picture that there was no negotiating when it came to Blue Dress. “Fine, I’ll lay off.”

The guy leaned back into the sofa so that he and Eddie were striking similar sprawls . Predictably, he couldn’t stay silent for long. “So did you two hear about the shooting?”

Jim frowned. “There another one?”

“Yup. Body was found down by the river.”

“They tend to turn up there.”

“What is this world coming to,” Adrian said, throwing back the last of his beer.

“It’s always been this way.”

“You think?”

Jim leaned back as the waitress planted freshies in front of the boys. “Nope, I know.”

“No offense, but I think I’m going to take off.”

Jim put down his empty and grabbed for his leather jacket. He’d had his two Buds, and one more was going to put him into DUI territory, so it was time to pull out.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving alone,” Adrian drawled, his eyes going over to Blue Dress.

She was still standing beneath that ceiling light. And still staring. And still breathtaking. “Yup, just me, myself, and I.”

“Most men don’t have your kind of self-control.” Adrian smiled, the hoop in his lower lip glinting. “Kind of impressive actually.”

“Yeah, I’m a saint, all right.”

“Well, drive home safe so you can keep polishing that halo. We’ll see you tomorrow at the site.”

There was a round of palm slapping and then Jim was making his way through the crowd. As he went, he drew looks from the black-laced and spiked-collared, probably in the same way all these Goths did when they were out at a mall: What the hell are you doing here?

Guess Levi’s and a clean flannel shirt offended their leather-and-lace sensibilities.

Jim chose a path that kept him far away from Blue Dress, and once he was outside, he took a deep breath like he’d passed some kind of test. The cold air didn’t bring quite the relief he wanted, though, and as he walked around to the back parking lot, his hand went to the pocket of his shirt.

He’d quit smoking, and a year later, he was still reaching for the Marlboro Reds. His frickin’ habit was like having an amputated limb with phantom pain.

As he made the corner and walked into the lot, he went past a row of cars that were parked grilles-in to the building. All of them were dirty, their flanks spackled with salt from the road treatments and months-old white snow grime. His truck, which was way down at the end of the third row in, was exactly the same.

He looked left and right as he went. This was a bad part of town, and if he were going to get jumped, he wanted to see what was coming at him. Not that he minded a good fight. He’d gotten into a lot of them in his younger years, and then been trained properly in the military—plus, thanks to his day job, he was in rock-hard shape. But it was always better to—

He stopped as a flash of gold winked at him from the ground.

Crouching down, he picked up a thin gold ring—no, it was a hoop earring, one of those guys that plugged into itself. He cleaned the grunge off and glanced over at the cars. Could have been dropped by anyone, and it wasn’t very expensive.

“Why did you leave without me?”

Jim froze.

Shit, her voice was as sexy as the rest of her.

Straightening to his full height, he pivoted on his work boot and stared across the trunks of the cars. Blue Dress was about ten yards away, standing under a security light—which made him wonder if she always chose spots that illuminated her.

“It’s cold,” he said. “You should go back inside.”

“I’m not cold.”

True enough. Hot as fuck would cover it. “Well . . . I’m leaving.”

“Alone?” She came forward, her high heels tracking across the pitted asphalt.

The closer she got the better-looking she became. Shit, her lips were made for sex, deep red and slightly parted, and that hair of hers . . . all he could think about was it falling over his bare chest and thighs.

Jim shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He was much taller than she was, but the way she walked was a sucker punch to the solar plexus, immobilizing him with hot thoughts and vivid plans: Staring at her fine pale skin, he wondered if it was as soft as it seemed. Wondered a whole hell of a lot about what was under that dress. Wondered what she would feel like underneath his naked body.

As she stopped in front of him, he had to take a deep breath.

“Where’s your car?” she said.


“Where is it?”

At that moment a cold breeze rolled in from the alley and she shivered a little, raising thin, lovely arms to wrap herself in a hug. Her dark eyes, which had been seductive in the club, abruptly became pleading . . . and made her nearly impossible to turn away from.

Was he going to do this? Was he going to fall into this warm pool of a woman, if only for a short time?

Another gust came barreling in, and she stamped one stiletto, then the other.

Jim took off his leather jacket and closed the distance between them. With their eyes locked, he encircled her with what had warmed himself. “I’m over here.”

She reached for his hand and took it. He led the way.

Ford F-150s were not exactly great for hooking up, but there was enough room if you needed it—and more to the point, the truck was all he had to offer. Jim helped her inside and then went around and got behind the wheel. The engine started quick and he turned the fan off, halting the blast of frigid air until things heated up.

She moved across the seat to him, her breasts rising above the tight bands of the dress as she got closer. “You’re very kind.”

Kind was not the way he saw himself. Especially not now, given what was on his mind. “Can’t have a lady cold.”

Jim ran his eyes all over her. She was huddled in his beat-to-shit leather jacket, her face turned down, her long hair falling over her shoulder and curling up into her cleavage. She might have come across as a seducer, but the truth was she was a good girl who was in over her head.

“Do you want to talk?” he said, because she deserved better than what he wanted from her.

“No.” She shook her head. “No, I want to do . . . something.”

Okay, Jim was definitely not kind. He was a man who was a palm’s reach away from a beautiful woman, and even though she was giving off vulnerable vibes, playing therapist with her was not the sort of horizontal he was after.

As her eyes lifted, they were orphan sad. “Please . . . kiss me?”

Jim held back, her expression putting the brakes on him and then some. “You sure about this?”

She swept her hair over her shoulder and tucked it behind her ear. When she nodded, the dime-size diamond in her lobe flashed. “Yes . . . very. Kiss me.”

When she held his stare and didn’t look away, Jim leaned in, feeling ensnared and not minding in the slightest. “I’ll go slow.”

Oh . . . God . . .

Her lips were every bit as soft as he’d imagined, and he stroked her mouth carefully with his own, afraid he would crush her. She was sweet, she was warm, and she trusted him to set the careful pace, welcoming his tongue inside of her, then later shifting back so that his palm could ease down from her face to her collarbone . . . to her full breast.

Which changed the tempo of things.

Abruptly, she sat up and took off his jacket. “Zipper’s in the back.”

His rough workman’s hands found the thing, and he worried about marring the blue dress as he drew the fastening downward. She took the top from her breasts herself, revealing a satin-and-lace bra that probably cost as much as his truck.

Through the fine material, her nipples were peaked, and in the shadows thrown by the dim light of the dash, they were feast-for-the-starved spectacular.

“My breasts are real,” she said softly. “He wanted me to get implants, but I . . . I don’t want them.”

Jim frowned, thinking that whatever pig asshole had come up with that one deserved an eye operation—performed by a tire iron. “Don’t do it. You’re beautiful.”

“Really?” Her voice wavered .


Her shy smile meant too much to him, piercing through his chest, going too deep. He knew all about the ugly side of life, had been through the kinds of things that could make a single day feel like it lasted a month, and he wished her none of that. Seemed, though, she’d had plenty of hard cracks herself.

Jim reached over and turned the heater on to warm her.

When he eased back, she swept aside one of the bra’s cups and framed herself with her hand, offering the nipple to him.

“You’re amazing,” he whispered.

Jim bent down and captured her flesh with his lips, sucking on her gently. As she gasped and thrust her hands into his hair, her breast cushioned his mouth and he had a moment of raw lust, the kind that turned men into animals.

Except then he remembered the way she’d looked at him, and he knew he wasn’t going to have sex with her. He was going to take care of her, here in the truck cab, with the heater going and the windows fogging up. He was going to show her how beautiful she was and how perfect her body looked and felt and . . . tasted. But he wasn’t taking anything for himself.

Hell, maybe he wasn’t all bad.

You sure about that? His inner voice cut in. Are you really sure about that?

No, he wasn’t. But Jim laid her down on the seat and wadded his leather jacket into a pillow for her head and vowed to do the right thing.

Man . . . she was drop-dead gorgeous, a lost, exotic bird who’d found a chicken coop for shelter. Why on God’s green earth did she want him?

“Kiss me,” she breathed.

Just as he braced his weight on his heavy arms and leaned over her, he caught sight of the digital clock on the dash: 11:59. The very minute he had been born forty years before.

What a happy birthday this had turned out to be.

Copyright 2009 by J.R. Ward
All rights reserved
May not be reproduced in full or in part without the express, written permission of the author.



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