A Perfect Storm
April 1, 2012
He never saw her coming…
Spencer Lark already knows too many secrets about Arizona Storm, including the nightmare she survived and her resulting trust issues. But in order to expose a smuggling ring—and continue avenging his own tragic past—the bounty hunter reluctantly agrees to make Arizona a decoy. Yet nothing has equipped him for her hypnotic blend of fragility and bravery, or for the protective instincts she stirs in him.
Arizona wants to reclaim her life, which means acting as bait to lure the enemy into a trap. Sure it’s dangerous, especially with a partner as distractingly appealing as Spencer. But as their plan—and their chemistry—shifts into high gear, Arizona may discover there’s an even greater risk in surrendering her heart to a hero….
Arizona Storm sat quietly on the overstuffed chair, her chin resting on her drawn-up knees, her fingers laced together around her shins.
In the quiet, shadowed room, she breathed in the unique aroma of aftershave and gun oil, and the headier scent of warm male. On the back of the chair behind her he’d tossed his jeans and a rumpled T-shirt. Close at hand on the nightstand, he’d placed his freshly cleaned gun and his deadly switchblade.
His discarded boxers lay on the floor.
He fascinated her.
After breaking into his house, she’d removed her sneakers and put them next to his boots by the front door. The air conditioning, set on high, left her toes cold, but he’d covered himself with no more than a thin sheet.
Again and again, her gaze tracked over him, from one big foot sticking out over the side of the bed, up and over his flat, solid abs covered by the snowy white sheet, to his chest – not covered by anything except enticing body hair.
With one arm behind his head, she saw his underarm and the dark tuft of hair there. Seeing that almost made him look vulnerable – except that, despite his relaxed pose, the positioning of his long arm made a thick biceps bulge.
At nearly six and a half feet tall, solidly built and finely sculpted, Spencer Lark was one of the biggest, strongest, most impressive men she’d ever met.
And she knew some really prime specimens.
His long lashes shadowed his high cheekbones, but that didn’t detract from the bruising beneath one eye. A recent fight? She smiled while picturing it, sure that Spencer had come out ahead. His skill at fighting intrigued her even more than his big bod.
Amazing, but even his slightly crooked nose held her rapt. When and how had he broken it?
She inhaled a deep breath and let it out in a quiet sigh that, given the silence in his home and Spencer’s acute instincts, disturbed his slumber.
Arizona admitted to herself that maybe she’d wanted to wake him. After all, she’d been watching him – and waiting – for awhile now.
His head turned on the pillow, his legs shifted.
Holding herself perfectly still, she waited to see if he’d awaken, what he’d do, what he’d say. She didn’t know him all that well, and yet… she did.
They’d met nearly a month ago while they were both on a sting. Immediately, they’d butted heads, and he’d infuriated her by interfering with her life.
But worse, he’d robbed her of the revenge she desperately craved.
Sure, he had his own need for revenge, so she understood his motives. She didn’t forgive him. Not yet, anyway.
But she did understand.
At least, she thought she did. Once they talked it over, then she’d decide for sure.
He made a soft, gravelly sound as he stretched that long, strong body. His chin tucked in. Muscles flexed.
The sheet tented.
Eyes widening, Arizona stared, not really alarmed, but no longer so at ease, either. She had a very dark history with aroused men, so she doubted she’d ever be unaffected by them. But she didn’t let it get in her way, not when she wanted something, not when she had a goal in mind.
She knew she should have taken Spencer’s gun, at the very least moved it out of his reach. But instead she’d found him in the bed, and before she’d even thought it through, she’d taken the empty seat and settled in to study him while he slept.
Since that fateful day when her destiny had been stolen from her, she’d seen him only a handful of times. She tried to stay away. She tried to forget about him.
She hadn’t been successful.
Stretching, he brought his hand out from behind his head, around to rub over his hair, across his face, down his chest.
As he gave a sleepy, growling groan of waking, that hand disappeared under the sheet.
Arizona’s lips parted and her heartbeat tripped up. She cleared her throat. “Spence?”
Freezing, without moving any other body part, he opened his eyes and met her gaze.
She frowned at him.
He didn’t look super-startled, and he said nothing. He just stared at her.
With his hand still under there.
“Yeah…” Semi-satisfied with his frozen reaction, she nodded at his lap. “You weren’t going for a little tug, were you? Because, as your spectator, I’d just as soon not see it.”
He brought his hand out and put it back behind his head, still silent, still watching her. Almost… relaxed.
His gaze was so dark, so compelling, she felt like squirming, damn it. “I mean, I guess I could wait in the other room if it’s really necessary. That is, if you don’t take too long.”
He disappointed her by not reacting. As if he often woke with an uninvited woman playing voyeur in his bedroom, he looked her over, from her bare toes up to her long, wind-tangled hair.
“Been here long?”
“Maybe half an hour or so.” Curiosity prompted her to ask, “Were you going to… you know?” She nodded at his lap.
“Most men say hi to the boys first thing.”
With no sign of discomfort, he shrugged one shoulder. “You broke in.”
A statement, not a question. She did her own casual shrug. “Since you’re not dumb enough to leave the place unlocked, yeah, I had to.”
He turned his head, but not to check on the time. He saw the gun still on the nightstand where he’d left it, and brought his gaze back to hers again. “You know how to make coffee?”
One eyebrow lifted high. “Trying to get me out of the room so you can leave the bed? I’m not squeamish, you know. I mean, with my background, I’ve seen plenty of –”
He threw off the sheet and sat up, effectively shutting down her snide retort.
“If you don’t know how to make coffee, just say so.” Spencer stretched again, harder, longer this time. Sitting on the side of the bed, he snagged up his boxers and stepped into them. As he stood, he pulled them up.
They fit like a glove.
He still had a tent going.
And she still stared.
He picked up the gun and, giving away some trust issues, checked to make sure she hadn’t unloaded it. Discovering she hadn’t touched it at all, he nodded in satisfaction.
As he passed her, he chucked her under the chin. “It’s called morning wood, little girl. No reason for alarm.” Gun in hand, he went on past her and into the bathroom. The door closed quietly behind him.
Belatedly, Arizona got her mouth shut. Oh how she hated when he called her “little girl.” As of today, she wasn’t quite as young as he thought, and given her experiences, well, she hadn’t felt like a kid in a very long time.
Her brows snapped down and her spine stiffened. She would not let him get to her. Huh-uh. No way.
This was her game. She would call the shots, and if anyone had to be tongue-tied, it’d be him.
She shoved to her feet, but did not stomp. Excesses of emotion gave away too much. She didn’t want him to know how he affected her.
At the bathroom door, voice cold and collected, she stated, “I’ll be the kitchen.”
Minutes later, just to prove a point, she went about making coffee.
* * *
Spencer stood with his hands braced on the porcelain sink, his head hanging, his muscles twitchy.
What the hell?
Sure, he knew Arizona Storm was a reckless, impetuous, headstrong girl. He’d figured that out in the first few seconds of her acquaintance.
But breaking and entering?
Why the hell had she sat there watching him sleep?
He felt… violated. Angry.
He felt extreme pity. For her.
Damn, but he didn’t want her, not in his house, not in his head. He could control the first.
Hadn’t had much luck controlling the second.
Not trusting her to respect his privacy, knowing damn good and well she would snoop without remorse, he gave up the idea of a shower and shave and instead rushed through brushing his teeth, splashing his face and finger combing his hair.
Since she wasn’t in his bedroom anymore, he took the time to pull on his jeans, but rather than mess with the holster, he just stuck the gun in his waistband. He grabbed up his knife, opened it, closed it again and slid it into his pocket.
Barefoot and shirtless, he went in search of Arizona – and he had to admit, anticipation chased away the cobwebs of old memories and lack of sleep.
Seeing her slumped in a kitchen chair, arms crossed, one foot hooked behind a chair leg, jolted his senses even more.
God Almighty, she was a beauty.
Slim, long-legged and generously stacked, with a face like a wet dream, Arizona would turn heads wherever she went. Dark wavy hair hung down her back, usually in disarray. Honey-colored skin seemed in direct contrast with light blue, heavily lashed eyes. A full mouth, a strong chin, high cheekbones…
He wondered at the mixed heritage that had produced such a dream.
As he stood unnoticed in the doorway, she chewed at a thumbnail. Arizona didn’t wear make-up, or polish her nails, or do much of anything to enhance her looks – and she didn’t need to. She could wear burlap and men would burn for her.
She went still before affecting a bored expression and swiveling her head to face him. “Do you always sleep till noon?”
“When I’ve been up all night, yes.” He made a beeline for the coffee pot, but didn’t thank her for making it. After all, she’d come in uninvited. “You want a cup?”
“If you have sugar and milk.”
“Creamer.” He poured two cups and set them on the table, then got the creamer from the fridge. The sugar bowl sat in the middle of the table, framed by salt and pepper shakers.
Like many of the things in his kitchen, they resembled cows in one way or another.
His wife had bought the novelty items years ago.
While blowing on the hot coffee, Spencer ruthlessly squashed bad memories. Arizona loaded her coffee with two heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a liberal splash of the cream.
He watched her lush mouth as she sipped, sipped again.
Shaking himself, he took a drink, and nearly choked. Strong enough to peel the lining from his throat, it was the worst coffee he’d ever tasted. Arizona didn’t seem to notice though, so he manned up and drank without complaint.
The overdose of caffeine would do him good.
Silence dragged out while they each gave attention to their coffee. He wouldn’t be the first to break.
Finally she eyed him. “How come you were out late? Carousing?”
Actually, he’d needed to expend some energy for reasons he wouldn’t yet examine too closely. Shrugging, he said, “I hit up a bar, found a little trouble.” He looked at her. “You know how it is, right?”
To his disgruntlement, she nodded. “Yeah, I did the same. But I fared better than you.” Her mouth quirked in a small grin and she winked. “No black eye.”
Had she really been in a bar? Looking for trouble?
He didn’t need to defend himself, not to her, but still he said, “You should see the other three guys.”
“Yeah? Only three?” Tsking, she let her gaze drift over him. “Any other bruises?”
She propped her chin on a fist. “One lucky punch, huh?”
Did she have to appear so amused by idiotic drinking and brawling? “Something like that.” Actually it was a thrown chair that had caught him, but whatever. He wouldn’t encourage her with details. “So tell me, little girl. What were you doing in a bar?”
She looked away. With one finger, she traced along the top of her coffee cup. “Sometimes,” she said low, her voice almost whimsical, “I just need a distraction.”
His chest tightened. He waited to see if she’d elaborate, if she’d share details of her tragic background spent with human traffickers. She had a need to even the score with people already dead, the monsters who’d hurt her badly.
Suddenly she leaned forward. “Can you keep a secret?”
Damn, he didn’t want to play these games. “Depends.”
She scowled. “On what?”
“On whether or not keeping it is in your best interest.”
Sitting back in irritation, she demanded, “Why does that concern you?”
He countered with, “Why do you want to tell me?”
For long moments they stared at each other, and then she broke. “Fuck it. I don’t. Not anymore.” After downing the rest of her coffee, she scraped back her chair. “I’m outta here.”
Spencer caught her wrist. And of course, that got her going.
Quick temper and a boulder-sized chip on her shoulder had her swinging a fist. He dodged it, but she kicked and caught him in the shin. Luckily she didn’t wear shoes, so it didn’t hurt.
In the ensuing scuffle, his coffee cup hit the floor and broke.
Given they were both barefoot, he did the expedient thing and tossed her over his shoulder. Clamping a hand over her thighs, he warned, “Bite me, and I swear to God, you won’t like the consequences.”
Rather than struggle, she braced her elbows on his back. “You’ve threatened me before.”
“Because you’ve attacked me before.” Stepping over and around the mess on his floor, he went into the hallway, then figured, what the hell, and went on into the living room.
He dumped her on the couch.
She bounded right back off again.
Another scuffle, and damn it, it was too early and he was too tired to put up with it.
“Arizona!” He locked her in close in a now familiar hold – at least with her – keeping her back to his chest, her arms pinned down. He squeezed her tight enough to steal her breath. “Knock it off already, will you?”
Her head dropped back against his chest so she could glare at him. He waited, refusing to relent, driven by… God knew what.
She gave one sharp nod.
Spencer opened his arms, but quickly stepped out of her reach. “Okay?”
So much animosity, so much rage at the world. She’d never admit it, but Arizona needed a friend, a confidante, and if it put him through hell, well, so what? He’d been in hell for awhile now. “You came to me, remember?”
“And now I’m trying to leave!”
His head pounded. If she walked out now, he’d spend the rest of the day worrying about her.
Or following her.
He worked his jaw, then said, “I’ll keep your secret. What is it?”
“Oh, aren’t you the generous one?”
He sighed. “The sneer is unappealing. Just tell me what it is.”
The narrowing of her eyes emphasized the pale, bright blue color and the thickness of her long, inky lashes. She drew two deep breaths, making it tough for him to keep his attention off her chest.
“It’s my birthday.”
Huh. Of all the things he’d imagined, that wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t even one of the top fifty.