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Chapter One

Talia

“No problem getting through that fence.” I turn to my friend and partner in crime, Lem, and give her a bright smile. “Now we need to find the elusive Danton Carter.”

Across the construction site, a few men in hard hats turn to stare. When they don’t look away immediately, my heart rate accelerates.

Lem rolls her eyes and touches her skirt. “Not loving the dust, Talia.”

“I don’t want to get kicked out before we talk to their boss.” I scan the area. “Do you see him anywhere?” I push my hair out of my face. “It’s so humid.”

My eyes catch on a man by a stack of 2x4s. He’s tall and built, and has the beginnings of a scruffy beard on his chiseled face. Super hot. He meets my eyes and I look away quickly.

“Too bad we’re not looking for that guy.” Lem nods her head in his direction. “Right?”

“If it doesn’t have a beer gut, several rows of jowls, and a cowboy hat with a feather, it isn’t Danton Carter. Once you see his pic on the website, you can’t unsee it.”

“Hot guy is staring.” Lem steps closer to me.

“Act like we belong. Walk that way.” I point to a silver trailer. “Maybe Carter’s in there, eating pork rinds.”

Lem snorts.

“Actually, he’s not eating pork rinds. He’s devouring the small, delicate bodies of the Moorish Crane. The very ones we’re trying to save. The ones he’s killing with this expansion into the woods.” My voice rises.

The handsome man puts down his hammer, unwraps a flannel shirt from his waist, and wipes his face with it.

Jesus, this guy is ripped! In his mid-thirties, I’d guess, his tanned skin is muscled like a fitness model, with a six-pack, strong biceps and triceps, narrow hips, and broad shoulders. His blue jeans ride low on his hips, and those boots… I do have a thing for guys in boots and worn jeans.

He tosses his shirt onto the pile of wood and strides toward me and my bestie, adjusting his hard hat.

“Talia. Incoming.”

“I can see that,” I hiss back, adjusting my skirt, wishing my heels weren’t so high. If I had sneakers on, I’d already be banging on that trailer.

“Ladies.” His voice is low and rich, but not welcoming. “This is a construction site. Private property. I need you to leave.”

I stick out my hand. “Hi. I’m Talia Carlsson and this is my colleague, Lem Hayes. We’re both volunteers from the—”

He doesn’t take my hand. “I don’t care where you’re from; you need to exit the premises. You’re not authorized, and you don’t have hard hats and boots. Let’s go.”

He gestures to the fence and gate. “I assumed the Employees Only sign might keep random people out. And the lock.” He narrows his eyes.

I cough. “It was left open.”

The man smiles, but it seems sort of predatory. “I suppose if I watched the security footage, I’d see exactly how you got in.”

“Maybe there’s no need to do that.” Lem pulls at my sleeve. “We can leave right now.”

“Not until we speak to Danton Carter.” I cross my arms.

The man stills. “What do you want with Danton Carter?”

“We’re from Earth First Environmentals.” I reach into my case and pull out a card. “My contact info.”

He takes the card and slides it into his front pocket without reading it, an easy move that makes my stomach flip, as I look at his lean hips. “Let me guess.” His voice is flat. “You’re with the group that keeps pestering us.”

“If you give us a chance to talk to him, I would appreciate it.” I make eye contact to show my sincerity. His eyes are a gorgeous cerulean blue. Holy mother of everything, who has eyes like that? And those lashes?

“Ladies, we need to walk.” His hand hovers just above my shoulder. “If you are injured on this site, it’s my ass.”

I try not to think about how much I’d like his ass, and how nice it looks in those jeans. I feel the warmth from his hand, and even though he doesn’t touch me, a little shiver of arousal sparks in my core.

“We’re not going near the work zone. We just wanted to find Danton.” I look back. “Or someone who knows where he is. Can you tell me where to find him?”

“The dangers are not limited to being hit in the head with an I-beam. You could trip over your own feet, fall and break your neck, and then sue.” He blows out a breath.

“Does that happen super often?” Lem’s voice is innocent.

“When people wear shoes like that, you better damn well believe it,” he says, a note of disgust in his tone, pointing at my heels.

“Ooh, no, these shoes are very comfortable,” I disagree, glancing down. “I walk quite well in them.”

Then I trip over an air molecule and fall right into the man.

Strong chest. Abs of steel. Arms that encircle me with strength. And his scent – not sweaty, like you’d assume, but sort of clean. Like soap, faint aftershave. Then a hint of deodorant and musk.

It’s over fast, then I’m back on my feet, breathing a little hard.

“Exactly,” he says, condescension dripping from his voice, “what I was talking about.” He rolls his eyes at me and Lem, but mostly at me. “Are you alright?” It’s like those last words were pulled from him.

“Yes.” I take a breath. “I only did that”—I sniff—“to make you feel good about yourself, like you get things right sometimes. It was intentional.” I stick up my chin and cross my arms. “You’re welcome.” I uncross my arms and adjust my hair, and his eyes follow the movement.

He scowls at me, hands on his hips, and slowly a smile works its way to his lips. “Is that so.”

“It’s exactly so.” My mouth twitches. “Because now that you’re softened up, you’re going to take us to see Danton Carter. Who’s one elusive… guy.” Sonofabitch, is what I wanted to say, but probably it’s not the best idea to insult a man’s boss in front of him.

“If he’s elusive to you, Ms.”—he pulls the card from his pocket and glances at it—“Carlsson, it’s for a reason. Have you considered that?”

“What’s your name again?”

He quirks a brow. “Again? Don’t recall I told it to you, yet.”

“You didn’t. That was my way of asking.”

“Kind of a roundabout way, don’t you think?”

“So what is it?”

He smiles at me. “You can call me Dane. Dane… Troy.”

“And this”—he gestures at the fence through which we recently came—“is called the exit. And this”—he raises his hand in a little Miss America wave—“is goodbye.”

“But wait.”

“Nice chatting, ladies.” He fixes us with a steely stare, and I gulp, stepping back through the opening with Lem. He clicks the lock shut and crosses his arms over that impressive chest. “You two have a fantastic day.”

When we don’t make a move to walk away, he raises one brow. “I’d sure hate to have to call security, which I will do in half a heartbeat if I see either of you two around here again in those.” He waves a hand at my heels, then turns to go.

“So I can come back if I wear my combat boots?” I call, and he snorts, turns back as if he can’t resist one more look.

“Please,” I implore. “It’s important. We have a miniscule window of opportunity here, and we only need a few minutes of his time. I’ve tried all the more traditional means—”

“You mean legitimate—”

“He’s not responding to emails, phone calls, texts, tweets.”

“If he’s not responding, it means the answer to whatever you want is probably already a no. Thank him for saving you some time,” he says drily. “Bye.”

Lem and I stand shoulder to shoulder, watching as he strides back to his pile of boards. He picks up the shirt and puts it on without glancing in our direction, then heads over to the group of men nearby.

“Is he a foreman?” Lem rummages in her purse and grabs her keys.

“He’s a dick.” I scowl.

“I’m sorry.” Lem turns to me. “That did not go well.”

“Understatement. Did we look stupid?”

“Well, women and feminists everywhere are crying, so I’d have to go with a resounding yes.” Lem shakes her head.

I groan in frustration as we get into her Prius. “I just thought if we could see him, face to face. Once. But we can’t even get past his guard dog.”

“It’s not over,” she consoles me. “They’re not scheduled to break into the breeding grounds for a few weeks, right? So you have time to track him down. Make your case.”

“Yeah.” I stare at the plastic banner that sways in the desultory breeze. Danton Carter Construction Corp. It’s held up on either side by two rough pieces of wood, one of which has pink spray paint. I see more pink marks along the ground, a dashed line, probably tracing the path of a future gas line or electric wire. “They’ve already built this much. Why would they change it now just because we asked?”

Lem nods. “And since everything they’re doing is legal, they don’t need to.”

“Maybe Mark is right. I’m wasting my time on this crane project.”

“Well, the thing about your time is that only you get to decide. Although…” she trails off and glances at me.

“What?”

“I mean, there are other breeding grounds for the cranes. And we do have other issues to handle. I hate to say bigger ones, but…” she pauses again. “I mean, you know I agree that Mark’s a douche ninety percent of the time. But he may be right, just this once.”

“Please. Ninety-five, Lem. Get it right.”

We both laugh, and she slows down to drive over a series of muddy bumps and a well of murky water in between.

“This is really far out. Weird place for corporate offices, don’t you think?” Lem looks out at the wild tangle of bushes that leads into the woods.

“That’s the thing. The zoning paperwork is so vague it could be anything.” I pull up the stack of printouts from my laptop case near my feet. “We’re assuming corporate offices. But maybe it’s a personal retreat for the big man himself. Funded with company money.”

“The legal team tried to untangle it and said it’s legit, though. Right?”

“Yup. And Mark said he needs them to work the sea lion issue in Carlsbad.” I sigh. “Wish I’d gone to law school sometimes.”

“Buy a box of Cracker Jack.” Lem snorts. “I hear they have some degrees in there.”

I smile, but then frown as we pass a meadow. “I bet he plans to develop all of this into urban blight. I can’t believe they sold him the land. Assholes, all of them. Our current city council sucks.”

“Don’t disagree there.”

When we make it to the main road, gravel pings the underside of the car as Lem pulls out. “Where to now?”

“Back to the volunteer office.” I scowl. “We have to figure out our next steps.”

 

Chapter Two

Dane

“You getting lucky with a threesome tonight?” My lead construction guy, Hector, swigs from a gallon bottle of water. He’s been distant lately, and I’m glad he’s joking with me today.

I laugh. “Yeah.”

“Not those two, of course. I’m talking about the viejas who work in the front office.”

“Your mom and your sister, cabrón.”

He snorts. We watch the two women pull away in some fucking little white Prius.

“Seriously, man, who were they?” He puts down the jug and wipes his mouth. His hand jerks and twitches and he turns away from me, as if he doesn’t want me to see.

I shrug. “No one important.”

“The one with the long brown hair, she had fucking nice legs.” He’s still facing away from me, massaging one hand with the other.

“You don’t say.” I raise my eyebrows.

“Why you gotta keep secrets, jefe?” He faces me again and rolls his eyes.

“They were just asking questions. Tourists.” I shrug.

“Okay, sure, sure.” He laughs but makes a strange expression.

I hesitate. “Everything’s good with you, right?”

“Fuck, yeah.” He says emphatically. “Better than okay. You going to fill in again?” He nods at the beams. “We’re one man short this morning.”

“For an hour at least. That good?”

“Yeah.” His expression of satisfaction lets me know that working alongside the crew is the right call for now as they get to know and trust me.

Hector’s an excellent manager. The men listen to him, and he has an uncanny ability to match talent to task. Since I promoted him, we’re at least ten percent more efficient. Meaning we get tasks done ten point four percent faster on average than when my uncle was running the show.

My gut twists, thinking of the mess Danton left me. This is not the time to have do-gooder environmentalist hippie dippie chicks prancing around. Those kinds of people piss me off, even if they’re not encroaching on my site. And there’s definitely no time for romance in my world these days—I can barely make time to sleep, let alone try to date.

I’m not into threesomes. But if I had time… They were both pretty, but I’d choose the one Hector mentioned, the one I tangled with—and keep her all to myself. Talia.

I smirk, thinking of how she tripped, and sassed me, all super rude, when she didn’t get her way. Her gorgeous brown eyes and the way they widened when she looked at me. Her lush lips. Curvy shape.

Fuck, if we hooked up, and if by some stray chance of the gods she was into what I like, I’d bend her over the hood of that little crappy white car and spank her ass good and hard for teasing me until she begged me to—

“Dane?”

“Yeah.” I swallow and focus on my cousin, who’s picking his way across the site in a three-piece suit and tie. Because he knows I’m anal about it, he’s also wearing his hard hat and boots. “What’s up?”

“I need to review the financials with you.” Art sniffles and touches his nose. “Oh God, the pollen. I’m literally going to die.”

I refrain from saying, “Go ahead.”

“This minute?” I raise my brows and glance back, but Hector has the crew already going. “I asked for email, not hand-delivery.”

“I’d appreciate it.” He crosses his arms and gives me the pouty look I remember from when we were kids. Used to be he’d follow it up by tattling. “I do have a busy schedule.”

“God forbid you’re late to a meeting,” I agree, narrowing my eyes.

He frowns. “Let’s go to your trailer,” he says, wrinkling his mouth. “I could use the AC.” He lifts the hard hat and smooths his hair, which has about an entire container of gel mixed in.

“You bet.” I raise a hand and make eye contact with Hector, and he nods. “Talk as we walk. Give me the overview.”

Art sneezes. “So we’re behind schedule on the Chicago and Baltimore projects since we had to do your renovations. My father didn’t think it necessary at the time, and I still don’t—” His voice is stiff.

“I explained that to the board.” I keep my voice even. “The buildings were started with lower grade wiring. We needed to upgrade.”

Art sniffles again. “It was to code when the project was initiated, and we were grandfathered in. Okay? So you going in there and overriding it didn’t make the board very happy. I’ll just say that. Very expensive.”

“The board,” I snap, opening the door to the trailer and gesturing to him to enter first, “can kiss my ass. They’d be crying another story if we were buried in multiple lawsuits or news stories, I promise you that. We need to have impeccable safety as part of our image.”

Art nods. “My father ran this company for over forty years and made it a powerhouse. The decisions you’re making are slowing us down and adding expense.” He raises his eyebrows, which are as sculpted as that woman’s. Talia’s. Of course, on her, it was fucking hot. “And I’m here to ensure we stay strong.” For a second I think I see some emotion in his eyes, but he looks away.

“Spell it out for me.” I cross my arms.

“The bottom line?” He scratches his cheek. “This project needs to get done on time and on budget and open up just as planned, or we are going to be in a world of hurt.”

“Meaning what, Art?”

“Meaning that if we’re all out of a job, nobody will give a flying fuck what kind of wiring we use, Dane.” He narrows his eyes. “You know how important it is that we get the next bid here in Mapleton. And if we fuck this one up at all, that one’s going to our competitors.”

I put up my hands. “The work’s gotta get done the right way. That’s a hard boundary condition. And if things weren’t that way in the past…” I let my voice trail off.

“I hope you’re not insinuating that my father was anything other than exemplary in his attention to detail.” Art frowns.

“It’s not an insinuation.” Let him make of that what he will.

We stare each other down for a second, then he averts his eyes. “I’ll email you the updated financials, like you asked. But I came here in person to let you know the severity of the situation.” His voice cracks and for a second his eyes look watery.

“You okay?” I raise an eyebrow.

“It’s my allergies, Dane. No, I’m not fucking okay. I need to get my Claritin. And I need to get going.”

“Consider me fully apprised.” I nod to the door. “Careful out there, Art. It’s only getting hotter. Don’t melt.”

He mutters something under his breath, then says, “I’ll need daily updates on the progress for the board.” He makes it sound like a request and a threat at the same time.

“You know me. Love updates,” I grunt.

He doesn’t reply, but raises a hand, and walks back toward the gate, his slacks making swishing noises.

“Put your hat back on,” I call. “Safety first.”

He says something I can’t catch, but sticks the hard hat back on his head as he walks to the gate, only whipping it off when he reaches his car. Tosses it in the back seat. He honks the horn on his sleek BMW twice as he takes off, raising dust.

“Motherfucker.” I groan and head back out to the crew. As I approach, I call out to Hector. “Where do you need me, man?”

I see respect in the way some of the men eye me, and I stand tall. Working with them seems to be helping with motivation and morale, things we need now more than ever here at Danton Carter Construction.

I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge—and right now, this is the biggest one I’ve ever taken on. It will take all of my focus and skills, but I’m confident I can turn this project around and get us back in the black. That is, if I stay on task and don’t allow anything to get us off schedule: Not protestors, not pretty women, nothing.

It shouldn’t be a problem.

Talia

“It shouldn’t be a problem.” I force a smile at Mark, and rub my temples, trying to stave away the headache that whispers from behind my eyeballs.

“Because, Taaalia.” He drags out my name, and I’m mesmerized by the way his thin lips move. “When I get a call from the head of security at a well-known construction site, complaining that my minions were harassing the crew, and snuck on-site illegally and not even in the correct safety gear, do you know how that makes me feel?”

“I don’t, Mark. Why don’t you tell me how that makes you feel?” I keep my voice pleasant. Dear sweet Jesus, though, I’m thinking. Just kill me now. Right now. Why do I even do this?

“I’ll tell you what I feel.” He points at me, and the ends of his fingernails, bitten to the quick, repulse me. “I feel that it makes us look a little unhinged. A little too much like PETA for my liking. We are a small and growing environmental group and we are a completely legitimate one.”

Behind his back, Lem mouths along on ‘completely legitimate’, and I put a hand to my mouth to stifle my laughter.

I stare at the bulletin board which is littered with pictures of celebrities who are active in social justice campaigns; these are the people Mark is wooing on a constant basis. It’s like a People Magazine married a National Enquirer and the two of them vomited all of their contents into our office. So far Mark hasn’t succeeded in obtaining a single famous spokesperson for any of our campaigns, but that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm one bit.

“We follow rules. We advocate for the helpless animals who need us, and we do it one hundred percent within the law of the country. Because otherwise we’re no better than the vicious creeps we protest against.”

“Absolutely.” I want to roll my eyes and smirk, but I can’t. How is this my life? At thirty-two, how did it happen that I spent my valuable free after-work time volunteering in a shitty little strip-mall office full of 70s style modular cubicles, getting lectured by a guy who resembles the naked mole rat he purports to love?

Then I glance over at the photos of the Moorish Crane—excellent photos, ones I took, not that I’m bragging—and it comes back to me: This is why. Because I give a shit about these animals, and because Mark—annoying though he is—also cares.

He frowns. “You know I more than appreciate all of the hours you’ve spent taking photos for us.”

“Yes.”

“And the crane calendars you designed. And I’d hate to lose you.”

“Lose me?” I frown.

“As a valued volunteer. But if you persist in rogue activities, I’ll have no choice but…” He pierces me with his gray eyes.

“Mark, please. I hardly think it’s a rogue activity to seek out the owner of a construction company that’s threatening the habitat of a special local species.”

“We need to be squeaky clean, Talia. That’s how we’re going to set ourselves apart. We can’t grow as an organization and get the funding we need from important donors if we’re not spotless.” Mark coughs. “I’m this close to getting Manda Shine on board. She grew up not too far from this town. Do you know how amazing that would be for Earth First Environmentals? It would put us on the map. And I need all my volunteers to embrace that. Keep the right image.”

I want to tell Mark to fuck himself. And that no way is a big, world-famous star like Manda going to support our dinky efforts here. But I swallow my pride.

“Oh, I can embrace that.” I give him a big smile. Lem and I are going to go for a drink, and I will verbally eviscerate this little weasel as if I were paid to do it.

“Good.” He clears his throat and picks up a picture of a crane. “Because this little guy?” He waves the photo at me. “He’s counting on you.” I think I see tears in his eyes.

The horrible thing is that even though I want to mock him—and oh, I will—I understand the emotion, too. I care about animals and their habitats.

But then I see Mark slide his glance over to another picture; the one featuring the cast of The Walking Dead. And it’s not clear to me whether his tears are because he actually cares about the animals, or because he’s so eager to consort with celebrities.

“I mean, protests are one thing.” He clears his throat. “Protest events we plan as a group. Ahead of time. With my appropriate foresight. And attendees.” His eyes stray to the bulletin board again, and he sniffs. “And this whole incident should never have happened. Remember I told you that we’re focusing on sea lions now, Talia?”

I steeple my fingers and try not to look guilty. Of course I remember. “Well, the legal volunteers, yeah. But as far as I understood, we here in town were still going strong on the crane situation because they’re local, and we’re local, and it makes more sense for us to focus on local—”

“We in town are doing what I say, Talia. Because last time I checked, I manage the resources. We don’t want to mix messages and resources. And right now I might need to take a trip to Monterey Bay, which is going to, as luck would have it, have a film festival this coming weekend! And I can’t be distracted wondering if you’re going to get into trouble.” He coughs. “So I need you to stay away from that site.”

“I will not go back onto that property without an invitation or appropriate safety gear,” I promise Mark.

“Thank you.” His voice is stiff. “Have a wonderful weekend, Talia.”

“Oh, you too.” I grab my purse. “Lem?”

She gets her stuff. “I’ll walk out with you. Later, Mark.”

“Hmmm.” He’s got his laptop open and he’s typing furiously. Probably reaching out to the reps for every celebrity he can think of.

As the door closes behind us, I let out my breath. “I don’t know why I tolerate him, Lem. I swear—”

“I know. I know.” She pats my arm. “Let’s go for a drink at Corndog’s. It’s a new place I want to try.”

“That does not sound like a good name.” I give her a dubious look.

“It’s the best, according to Karla. Corndog Cemetery. It’s a new underground bar and it’s super cool.”

“And they’ll let us in?”

“How could they not?” She waves a hand up and down her body. “We are hotness personified. Also, it’s not like a bouncer situation place. Just, you know, hard to find.”

“Like a secret?”

“More like funky and unusual and sort of difficult to locate, but not actually secret.”

“Then count me in.”

“Consider yourself counted.”

“I do consider myself that.”

“Good, because you are.”

 

Chapter Three

Talia

“So we go into this Chinese restaurant,” Lem explains, “and through the kitchen. Then we’ll find a door marked ‘No Enter.’ We enter it, go down some stairs, and if we say ‘Corndogs are cool’ at the next door, we get ten percent off a drink. And we get to enter.”

“That sounds so James Bond. Are you sure?” I glance over at the pink neon sign that flashes ‘Happy Yum Noodle’ although the N is burned out. There’s trash on the sidewalk and the whole area has a desolate, run-down feel, although there’s a fair amount of street traffic and pedestrians. Across the street, a parking lot is full of high-end vehicles, but I have no idea where the patrons might be.

“Not entirely. Think of it as an adventure.”

“Why would the restaurant allow people to walk through their kitchen? Isn’t that against the health code?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know that places around here care too much about things like health and code.” She makes air quotes on the words. “They probably get paid a nice little sum from the bar.”

“Well, as a volunteer who just got her non-paying job threatened by a weasel for doing things against protocol, I personally want to say that I care about things like that.”

“Where’s the spitfire who tweaked that lock this morning?” She giggles. “Guess Mr. Hot Ass did review the security tape.”

“It wasn’t even really locked. And I’d like to tell him exactly what I think of him.” I scowl. “Let’s go.” I get out of her car and slam the door, and stand on the sidewalk, inhaling the scent of crispy beef grease. “Jesus, that smells good.”

“Air crack,” Lem agrees. “Even if we don’t find the bar, they probably make a delicious egg roll.”

“That’s the scam. There’s no bar. They suck you in and once you’re there, you’re all, fuck it. I’m already here. Might as well get seven orders of Lo Mein and some Orange Chicken.”

We open the door and push aside a waterfall of beaded strings. The place is dim, heavy on the red and gold and Buddhas. A few people—all Chinese—are eating in booths. Nobody looks up at us, but I feel out of place.

“So, the kitchen?” I raise my eyebrows.

“Yes,” whispers Lem. She takes my hand. “Give me bravery.”

I squeeze her fingers. “You lead the way. I’m tapped out of sass.”

We make our way over to the kitchen. A woman looks up at us from a booth where she’s folding napkins and raises her eyebrows.

I smile, sure that she’s going to stand up and tell us, “Stop.”

But she just nods and goes back to her task, and as we approach the swinging gray door with the round porthole window, my heart starts to hammer. “This is exciting,” I hiss. “We’re really doing this.”

“Ooh, back up.” Lem grabs me by the arm as the door opens, nearly hitting me. “Busy.”

A waiter comes out with a tray of steaming entrees; gives us a quick glance but doesn’t stop.

I peer through the window. “Are there any doors in there? And look how close we’d have to walk to the grease tanks. I don’t know—”

“Let’s just see. We came this far.” Lem pokes me in the back. “Go in.”

“Me? Why should I go first?” But I tentatively push the door. A wave of heat hits me as I step into the narrow galley. A man looks up from chopping onions and gives us a stare, and a row of headless ducks lie naked and pale on a metal slab. There’s no door marked ‘No Enter.’

“Oh, fuck,” I whisper to Lem. “This feels wrong.”

“Yeah.” She bites her lip. “Um, I just remembered. I’m not sure it’s Happy Yum Noodle. Maybe it’s Panda Empire.”

“Lem! Those aren’t even remotely similar.” I grab her hand.

“Can we help you?” A voice from behind us rings out—someone else has entered the kitchen after us.

At first I assume it’s the manager. Except the voice is familiar—and as I turn, the words “I’m sorry, we’re just leaving” on my lips, I recognize who it is.

It’s the guy from the site. Dane. Except right now he’s no longer in his jeans and bare chest. He’s wearing slacks and a dress shirt that hugs his body in all the right places, and holy fucking hell do my eyes pop.

“These are the same two who snuck into my construction site this morning. Not surprised to find them wandering around another place they don’t belong.”

He turns to the guy beside him, a tall man with dark hair, and says something in Chinese, and the two of them laugh loudly. My face burns as they stand in the doorway.

Dane eyes me. “Talia.” When our eyes meet, a spark flares, and I swear, the air between us gets hotter than it already is inside the kitchen.

“Dane. So lovely to see you.” I smile. “Tattling on me again?” I raise my eyebrows and cross my arms.

“Have you done something bad, again?” His voice, rich and low, rolls over me, and I withhold a shudder at the way he says the word bad. His eyes flash at me and he smirks, as if he’s reading the dirty thoughts in my mind.

“Depends on how you define bad,” I retort. Not my best reply ever, but I’m flustered by his eyes. The biceps filling out those sleeves. His narrow hips.

His smile is dangerous. “Why don’t you tell me how you define it.”

“Well, I don’t define it by trying to save a species of bird and its habitat from getting wiped out by a construction company.”

“Perhaps we can continue this conversation in the dining room.” The other man gestures. “Please, ladies. Dane.” His almond-shaped eyes, dark and alert, scan us both, but he gives Lem a second glance. I think he’s incredibly handsome—tall and lean, his suit fits him perfectly.

“Apologies, Bae.” Dane ducks his head. “I’ll take care of the miscreants for you. These intruders happen to be Talia Carlsson and her sidekick—”

“Lem,” adds my friend, sticking out her hand.

“Bae Xo.” He shakes my hand, then takes Lem’s hand, and I think I see her sparkle. He holds her hand for a long second before releasing it. “You know, the guided tour is only a few dollars extra. There’s no need to sneak around.”

“I’m sorry.” Lem steps in a little closer. “We thought there was a secret bar hidden in here.”

“A bar?” Bae raises his brows. “Really.”

“But I was mistaken.”

“So it would seem.” He smirks.

“But I have to say that I’m entirely fascinated by the onion chopping process. And ah, duck cooking.” Lem points to the kitchen.

“Then by all means. Please. Let me take you around.” He bows and takes her elbow. “Yes?”

Lem seems utterly charmed. “I’d love that.” Her voice is low and breathy, and I roll my eyes.

As the two of them disappear behind the swinging door, I look up at Dane. “So.”

“So.” He smiles. “Do you consider this fate?”

“She has off days. It’s possible.” I shrug, pretending that his broad shoulders aren’t doing things to my libido.

He laughs. “Come on, don’t hold a grudge.”

“You called my boss, Dane, at the environmental group where I volunteer. And complained about me.” I scowl at him.

“You were trespassing.” His smiles fades. “Being unsafe. Tampered with a lock, for which I could actually have called the police. Am I incorrect?”

I sigh. “No. It’s just… complicated.”

He tilts his head. “Want to tell me about it? With a formal apology?” There’s a glint in his eye that makes me weak. “Promise not to come back?”

I weigh my options. “If I do, will you help me get a meeting with Danton Carter?”

He hesitates and a strange look passes over his face. “I can’t make any promises.”

“But you’ll consider it?” My heart leaps, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting closer to my goal, or because I get to spend time with this man.

He doesn’t reply.

“How about you’ll answer…” I think wildly. “Three questions about him. Deal?”

Finally, he nods.

“Then yes. I would like to apologize.” I smile.

There’s a pause. He’s looking at me expectantly. “Anytime, then.” He pierces me with his stare.

“Oh, you wanted the apology immediately? I thought we’d chat first, work up to it.”

“Right away.” There’s a note to his voice that sets wild butterflies loose in my body, and turns my veins to fire. He’s so dominant right now, like the fantasy man of my dreams. “If it’s a genuine one, of course.” He raises a brow.

“I’m sorry I bypassed an inexpertly locked gate and came onto the site without appropriate gear.” I smile.

“And?” He crosses his arms.

“And… that’s it. What else did you want me to say?”

A little smirk plays on his lips and suddenly I think about all kinds of wicked, dirty things that have nothing to do with construction sites or Danton Carter. My face grows hot and I touch my cheek.

He laughs. “Just trying to find out if you needed to ‘fess up about anything else.”

I ignore the way my nipples want his fingers. “I think that’s the entire catalogue of today’s sins, thanks.” I narrow my eyes. “But I appreciate the opportunity to soul-cleanse. Not enough of that these days.”

“Indeed.” He grins.

“So now you have to answer my questions about Danton Carter.” I don’t even try to keep the note of triumph out of my voice.

“I suppose I do.” He smiles at me, but doesn’t say more.

“Okay. So first of all, where can I find—”

“How about down in the bar?”

What?” I blink, nonplussed.

“More comfortable. I’ll answer your questions in the bar, all three of them.”

“Which bar?”

“The one you were trying to find. It’s just downstairs.” He smirks at me.

“You are such a dick.” I shouldn’t say it, but it slips out. “The bar was there all along?”

He laughs. “You go through a door in the back, by the alley. Come on, I’ll show you.”

“Why are you even here? I don’t understand why you of all people would be in this restaurant slash embarrassing place slash bar.” I frown.

“My friend owns it and I’m doing some work on the building for him.” He regards me for a minute. “Expansion. You think a construction guy can’t speak Chinese and have friends in the restaurant business?”

I put up my hand. “Just curious.”

He nods. “Fair enough.”

I look for Lem.

He seems to know what I’m doing. “Don’t worry, Bae will bring her down in a minute. She’s safe.”

I think it over; mentally agree. Follow him back through the restaurant, where he waves and says something in Chinese to the woman folding napkins.

When we walk around back, he points to a door. It’s nondescript metal, a little battered. Yet it has a bright red chicken painted onto the door, and a speech bubble. The chicken is saying something I can’t read, as the words are written in Chinese.

“It says, Corndogs are better than chicken. We go in through here.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe this was here all along.”

“Sorry.”

From his smirk, I can see he’s not sorry at all. “You are not.” I give him a look.

“You’re right. I’m not. I’m enjoying this.” He smiles at me, and when I see the dimple in his cheek, I can’t help a matching grin from spreading across my face. “Come on, then.”

He takes my hand, and I know I shouldn’t allow it, but it feels perfect. I love his strong fingers holding my delicate ones—warm, pressing just with the right amount of pressure. The feel of skin on skin makes me want him.

 

Chapter Four

Talia

The stairs are narrow, and he goes down first, still holding my hand. Nobody is waiting at the bottom to hear us say, “Corndogs are cool.” I roll my eyes, thinking I’m going to have to lecture Lem about her website browsing techniques.

A band is playing, and it’s so loud that you can’t talk. There’s no way I’ll be able to ask any questions or hear his answers.

I’m pissed, and then I forget all about that, because he puts his mouth right up to my ear and says, “What do you want to drink?” His breath on my skin practically makes me swoon.

I have to speak into his ear, too, and it’s the sexiest fucking thing I’ve done in a long time. I rest my hand on his shoulder and he bends down to accommodate me while I reach up on tiptoes. “Pinot Noir if they have it. If not, I’ll take whatever.”

His shirt is crisp under my hand, and I feel his muscles. Smell him—cologne, soap, his skin. I love it.

He puts his mouth back to my ear. “You want the menu, or do you trust me to choose?” His breath fans my hair and sends tingles down my spine. Into my toes, my nipples.

I tilt my head up again to talk into his ear, and he rests one hand lightly on my waist, as if to provide support. His fingers splay out, softly, not doing anything erotic. But the touch alone makes me catch my breath.

“You think you know what I want?” I half-whisper it, but my lips are so close to his face that he can hear me.

A muscle clenches in his jaw. “I think I’m a fast learner. Never had complaints.” His hand tightens ever so slightly.

“Is that so?” This time I leave my hand on his shoulder a second longer. My whole body aches for it and I sigh, like a druggie getting her high, when I feel his lips at my ear again, that tingly tickle of his voice.

“You taste what I give you and tell me what you think, alright?”

Fuck me, but I want to taste him. I want what he’ll give me.

A slow smiles spreads across my face.

He raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, Talia.” He runs a hand over my arm and steps away, pointing to the bar. When he leaves my side I feel surprisingly alone, and shudder, touching my neck. My ear. Where his lips just were.

I stand by the tall table and press my thighs together, already feeling a driving need in my core. What is it about this man that has me so worked up?

People are dancing in front of the band, in a small square that barely accommodates a few couples, but they’re not bothered by the tight quarters. Others stand together, swaying to the beat, and at the handful of small tables, people sit locked together in embraces, or talking like Dane and I did: intimate, right into each other’s ears.

Dane comes back with a glass of wine and something on the rocks. He hands me the wine and holds up his own glass; a toast. I clink, and as the band plays something wild and exotic, I taste the pinot, letting the flavor burst onto my tongue. He’s watching intently, eyes on my lips, and it feels like he’s tasting it, too. I want him to taste it from my lips.

He bends down. “First question. Fire.”

I lick my lips. It’s hard to bring up the face of florid Danton Carter in my mind, and even more difficult to focus on what I need to ask.

The band launches into a ballad, and it’s slightly less noisy. I put my mouth to his cheek next to his ear. “Where can I find Danton Carter, the CEO? I found his bio on the website, but I can’t locate the man.”

He looks up at the ceiling and sighs, then puts his mouth to my cheek, finding the same spot I touched on his face. It’s erotic, and it makes it difficult to listen when he says, “He’s out of the country.”

Fuck. I swallow. “Where?”

He shakes his head, then presses his lips to my ear. “He didn’t send out a memo to the staff about that.”

“When is he coming back?”

He shrugs, but follows it up with a low murmur into my ear. “He hasn’t said a thing about his return to the crew.”

“Well, he must have a second in command, right? Who’s that person, and can I talk to them instead?”

Instead of answering, he gives me a slow, lazy smile. “That was three, Talia.”

“Dane.” I pull back in irritation. “Those weren’t even useful. That’s not fair.”

“Is it my fault if you can’t come up with the right queries?” He raises a brow. “Maybe you need to enroll in a continuing ed class, Journalism 101. I held up my end of the bargain.”

“You did not.”

“I’m sorry, are we both using the same numerical system?” He gives me a smug little chuckle. “You know, the one invented by the Arabs and then imported to the Western world in the—”

“Oh my God. You are so frustrating right now.” I scowl.

“Oh, I am?” He gives me a look. “How about you try this on: A woman comes sneaking into the construction site where I’m leading a crew, almost hurts herself, harasses me—“

“I was not harassing—”

“Then tries pumping me for information about somebody who clearly doesn’t want to talk to her—”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand why he’s such a recluse. Why, is something wrong with him? Is he, like, in jail?” I narrow my eyes. “In rehab? Look, all I want is half an hour just to talk to him face to face and tell him about our environmental concerns.” I think of that red, florid face. “Is he getting an angio or something?”

At the look of steely disapproval on Dane’s face, I sense that I’ve gone too far. The disappointment that hits me has as much to do with the man himself as with my inability to access Danton Carter.

I sigh. “Are we done here then?”

“We’re done with that conversation.” His voice is flat.

“Will you at least give him my card? Put it on his desk and give him the chance to call me?” I’m desperate.

He seems to consider this. “I’ll put it on his desk.” He nods. “Now can we move on?”

I shrug, pissed I didn’t get more information.

He adds, “I just don’t have a lot to tell you. Sorry.” He grins, tilts his head.

“Well, I suppose if I’ve drained you.” I smile. I suppose a foreman wouldn’t have information on the CEO, necessarily. Shame. I thought this was going to be a good lead.

“Oh, now who’s talking dirty?” He trails a finger down my arm. “I wouldn’t mind if you did.”

“Oh, you’re going to have to earn that.” I give him a mock ferocious stare, but my whole body is alight with energy.

Across the room, Lem and Bae appear, and she’s glowing like a thousand marquee lights. When she sees me, she waves. Instead of coming over, she and Bae head to the dance floor, where he encircles her in his arms, looking down into her face.

“See, told you she’d make it.”

“I wasn’t worried, or I wouldn’t have left her.”

“Good friend.” He lifts his glass, and when I don’t lift mine, he leans in and clinks my goblet. “Truce. Yes?”

I bite my lip. The music changes again, back to the previously loud rhythm, a driving beat. Like sex. I toss caution aside. “Yes.”

“Good.” The smile that comes across his face, satisfied and teasing, makes my heart pound. “Answer me honestly. If we met somewhere else, and I asked you out on a date, would you have said yes?”

“Possibly.”

He laughs. “Then how about we consider this a date? Even if it started off a little rough?”

I tilt my head, a noncommittal gesture. “I don’t know if I’m ready for a date.” Then I put my lips back to his ear, feeling reckless. “But you can try to convince me, if you’d like.”

He smiles. “I do like. And I don’t think you’ll need much convincing.”

“Pretty sure of yourself.” I raise an eyebrow. “Cocky.”

“If you like, yes.”

“You are a bold, bad man.”

“I can be that and more. So why don’t you set the pace.” He puts down his drink. “You’ll tell me if we make it to a second date. Or anything.” He grins. “I’ll just sit back and be charming.”

“Oh, you will?” But I’m already charmed. I’ve already half-lost my heart, for reasons I can’t explain.

He taps my drink. “How do you like it? Are you… satisfied?”

The environment, one of wild abandon, makes me shed my inhibitions. I press my lips right to his earlobe, and put both hands on his chest, liking the way his body tenses under my touch. Leans in closer. “Not even close. But the wine is delicious. Thank you.”

He wraps one hand around my neck and bends down, laughs into the other side of my neck, into my skin. I can feel the vibrations of his chuckle in my nerve endings. In my fingertips. In my clit. “Tell me what will do it, then.”

“You think you could handle it?” For some reason we’re face to face now, and I’m speaking into his lips. So close. Just a millimeter apart.

“Why don’t you try me? I think you’d be surprised.” He smirks, and the confidence in his face, his stance, make me weak.

“I do like surprises.” I run my hand down his arm, and our fingers intertwine. He strokes my palm with his thumb.

“Tell me what kind of surprises you like best.” He nips my neck softly.

I moan and close my eyes, leaning into his strong chest. He dips his head down and bites my earlobe. “You like your surprises soft or rough, Talia?”

“Both. It depends.”

He puts one arm around me and holds me against his chest, runs his index finger over my upper lip, then my lower one. “I’m good at either.”

“Do tell.” My voice is low now, and our heads are so close that nothing can interfere; not the band, not the lights, not the other people. It’s just us and this beautiful, fucking delicious tension.

“Oh, I don’t think so.” His murmur is so soft I have to really lean in to hear it. “You’re setting the pace, remember? You need to be the one to tell me something. Either a stop, or a yes, more.”

“Oh, I do?” I just want any excuse to have my face near his. My lips by his skin, his mouth by mine. His body brushing mine, sending exquisite sparks of energy into me with each stray touch, each deliberate caress.

“Mmm hmm.”

“Tough decision.” I lean my head back and listen to the music, feeling it pulse in my chest, in my abdomen.

“You seem like a woman who knows what she wants.”

I smile. “I do know what I want.” And I press my lips to his for a second, pull back to say, “And I want this,” before kissing him again.

His hands go to my face, one on either side, and he kisses me back, his lips tasting of scotch. He uses his tongue to explore my mouth, teasing mine, and I press into him as closely as I can until my hips are against his thighs. His body is hard, flat, muscular—everywhere I touch, where I run my hands, is a pleasure.

He bites my lip, then bends down and kisses my neck, sucks the skin, and I moan in arousal.

When I lean forward for another kiss, he pulls away, and takes both of my hands in his. He looks at me for a long second, his eyes full of passion.

“Not here,” he says, a little smile on his face.

When I don’t reply, he leans in to whisper into my ear, “Unless you want to put on a show, and there are more appropriate places for that.”

I shake my head. “No show.”

His mouth twitches. “Would you like to leave?” He loosens his grip on my hands and steps back. Giving me space to think, maybe, but I don’t want it. “I’ll take you to my place.”

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