Lethal Nights (Brute Force), page 1
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In remembrance and deepest fondness.
Timothy Craig Justice
May 23, 1962–September 7, 2018
The world was a brighter place for your presence and has now dimmed at your loss. True friends are few and far between, and losing one leaves a wound upon my heart that I cannot describe.
You are missed, more than words can ever say.
I saw a butterfly today, strange but true, and immediately I thought of you. As I watched it flutter about the bush of blooms, I realized, we haven’t completely lost you.
You left us memories of your smile, so free and filled with joy. Memories of strength, of gentleness, from the time you were a boy.
You left us memories to make us smile, those of butterflies and satellites and a gentle soul. And no matter the years away, no matter the scars your own heart held, your smile held hope and a friendship that would always remain.
I can’t say goodbye, sadly that’s true. I’m sorry, it’s far too hard to let go. Till we meet again, dear friend, I’ll always mourn the loss of you.
Love is just a word–
Until someone gives it meaning.
Ilya Nicholas Dragonovich.
Son of the Dragon. She thought she’d heard somewhere that that was the literal translation of his surname. If so, it fit him from head to toe.
Emma Jane stared back at the tall, dark vision of pure danger and dark, carnal sex appeal and wondered why she wasn’t shaking in her size 6 sneakers. A normal, everyday woman should never be forced to face such men. Just being in their presence drove home the fact that there might be pleasures, experiences, and hungers that would always be denied.
His sunbronzed face was covered on one side by a menacing tattoo of a dragon, red eyes glaring at her from just above his left brow. Rough-hewn features were arranged with a hint of aristocracy, but for the evidence of a once-broken nose and the shadow of scars beneath the dragon. The icy stoicism in his pale green eyes and expression called to her and made her heart ache as he stood before her, made her want to reach out and touch him.
She wanted to stroke him.
There was something about him that was just so primal, elemental. He was a force of nature. He made her heart race.
He expected her to be frightened. The man she’d always called Dragon when she saw him in the society pages stood on her front porch, all but glaring down at her. He seemed to be awaiting a less than welcoming response. She probably should be frightened. Would have been, but instead she was charmed.
“How can I help you, Mr. Dragonovich?” Was that surprise in his gaze? If so, she’d better hurry and relish the victory, because she had a feeling it wouldn’t last long. “The society pages precede you,” she assured him with a grin, pushing back her nerves. “I recognize you.” She wagged her brows. “‘Russian Lothario on the Loose’! I believe you had two young women of European royalty on your arm that night.”
The slash of his dark brow arched slowly, causing the head of that tattoo to tilt its snout just enough to look curious.
She decided in that moment she was in love with this man’s ink.
“If you recognize me, then perhaps you could invite me inside,” he suggested, the subtle flavor of his Russian accent sending a tingle up her spine. “I have an offer I’d like to discuss with you.”
An offer? For her?
She was ordinary. Men like him did not offer women like her anything.
“What kind of offer?” She couldn’t exactly hold back her suspicion.
Was that a grin edging his lips? A hint of amusement in a man who the paparazzi swore never smiled?
“The kind that ensures you keep your home when your divorce is final, and one that aids an agency I represent. I refuse to stand on your doorstep while you consider it though.”
An offer to save her home when she was certain her estranged husband was indeed going to be able to force her to sell it? Okay, she might want to hear this.
She stepped back. Not that she trusted him, but the call she’d put through to her cousin Mikayla Steele’s husband ensured help was on its way. It wasn’t every day a dragon stood on a girl’s doorstep and she couldn’t be too careful.
“I called my cousin’s husband, Nikolei Steele, when you stepped from your car,” she warned him. “He’s a badass and he’ll mess up your pretty face if I ask him to.”
He stepped inside, and the once-spacious hallway suddenly seemed much smaller. He towered over her, surrounded her, the warmth of his body sinking into hers in a way that sent a shiver up her spine.
“Good choice.” He nodded, his gaze direct, as curious as his ink now appeared to be. “Nik Steele’s a good man. We’ll just wait for him…” He tilted his head to the side, causing his dragon to watch her as though with interest. “I must admit though, I don’t think I’ve ever had a beautiful woman call me pretty.”
Was that amusement gleaming in his eyes? The faintest hint of a smile at his lips?
“It’s the dragon.” She shrugged, narrowing her eyes on the iridescent scaled face. “I think he’s flirting with me.”
* * *
Ilya, the Dragon son and heir, felt the oddest sensation in his chest when she wrinkled that cute little nose and told him his dragon was flirting with her.
Standing there in denim shorts cut just a breath below indecent and a white tank top, with beautiful creamy flesh that shimmered in the sunlight, she was laughing at a tattoo that grown men had been known to tremble at the sight of.
“Ink does not flirt,” he informed her, trying to keep his tone cool with none of the amusement he could feel threatening his normally icy façade.
“I have sweet iced tea, water, or coffee,” she stated, ignoring his objection as she turned to lead the way to the open, sun-filled kitchen, and all he could see was an ass he wanted to palm in the worst way.
“Coffee would be appreciated, if it’s not too much trouble.” He paused at the doorway, expecting her take the coffee and conversation to the formal living room they passed.
“Well, come in and have a seat.” She gestured to the kitchen table where it sat in front of a wall of spotless windows looking out on the front yard and drive. “My family has a tradition of conducting business at the kitchen table.” She threw a smile filled with warmth and dreams over her shoulder at him. “You know, where the food is.”
The warmth of her laughter, her refusal to fear him despite the wariness shadowing her pretty gray eyes, was an enigma to him and he found himself craving more.
Never had a woman treated him so … normally. As though he were no better or worse than herself, simply different. He liked the feeling.
Moving to the table, he pulled a chair free, unbuttoned the silk jacket he wore, and took his seat as he set his briefcase on the floor beside him.
“My agency has actually worked with Nik’s security firm in the past,”
“Hmm,” she murmured, pouring a mug of coffee and moving toward the table. “Take your coffee black, don’t you?”
He fought to find the normal badass he was told he projected so easily. Instead, he feared he was staring at her like a slobbering puppy desperate for a pat.
“Please,” he agreed as she placed the cup before him. He waved his hand to the table. “Won’t you sit? We can begin our discussion before Nikolei arrives.”
“He made me swear I’d wait on him before I even let you past the door,” she admitted, stepping back to the center island with a rueful tug of her lips. “You need to do something with that flirty dragon, Mr. Dragonovich, he’s gonna get you in trouble.”
Staring at her, he caught himself breathing out a sigh.
“It is just a tattoo, Ms. Preston,” he told her as though the subject were of no interest to him. “Tattoos don’t flirt, they are simply ink.”
“Hmm,” she murmured again, her gaze flicking back to the dragon at the side of his face, and nearly had him lifting his hand to cover the damned image. “If you say so.”
“I say so,” he decided, quickly, desperate to change the subject.
“But I think your dragon just winked at me…”
All Ilya could do was sigh. This was not an encouraging beginning at all.
* * *
Three days later the contract between Emma Jane Preston and the representative for Brute Force, Ilya Nicholas Dragonovich, was safely locked in his briefcase and, in an utter act of idiocy, Ilya decided, he was driving Emma Jane back to her home well after dark.
She was a shrewd negotiator, even without the suggestions her cousin’s husband, Nik Steele, had thrown in. The bastard. He’d refused to allow Emma Jane to discuss the agreement with Ilya alone. And Emma Jane had very shrewdly followed his suggestion, even during the two days and nights Ilya, or Dragon, as she had taken to calling him, had stayed under her roof to get a better understanding of what her home would need to ensure the security of any clients or agents sent to it.
And the agreement had come just in the nick of time for her, as he knew it would. Within days she would have lost the home she’d been fighting to hold on to through her divorce.
He’d saved her home, just as he’d meant to. Because to do otherwise was unthinkable. It would have haunted him. He’d seen her briefly at the job fair when he’d been meeting with the sheriff. He’d known then that he needed to see her again.
It was her eyes, he decided. That soft dove gray, still filled with hope despite the shadows and still bright with dreams despite the difficult divorce she was involved in. This woman was one a man kept.
If he was a man at all he didn’t think to merely play with such a treasure, no matter her claims that his tattoo did just that.
Pulling into the driveway of her home, he watched as the motion sensor lights came on, narrowing his eyes against the glare until he glimpsed the tiny red dot that indicated the security camera was activated.
The footage would stream wirelessly to Nik Steele’s server as well as to the Brute Force offices in New York. Should the alarm activate then it would send out an alert to several different locations, ensuring help would be there quickly.
“Thank you for driving me home.” Her voice was a gentle stroke on his senses, making him wish he were a different kind of man. The kind of man who could claim a woman such as her.
“I’ll walk you to the door.” He’d already placed his bag in the trunk of the car. There was nothing left of him in her home.
Moving from the vehicle to her side of the car, Ilya opened the door and reached out for her hand to help her out. Her hands were like silk, soft and warm within his palm as he held on to her.
He didn’t want to let her go. Not yet. Not tonight. And yet he knew he couldn’t hold her either.
“I want to thank you again,” she said softly, glancing up at him as they moved onto the porch. “For saving my home.”
The overhead light spilled down on them, and in her eyes he saw the same struggle, the same wants and needs.
Ilya took her keys, unlocked the door, and told himself he wouldn’t touch her. He couldn’t touch her.
She couldn’t belong to him.
“You’re leaving tonight?” she asked as he stepped back. “It’s late.”
Yes, it was late. Too late to believe a woman like Emma Jane Preston could belong to him. Too late to wipe away his past.
“If I stay, I’ll fuck you, Emma Jane.” The sound of his voice was harsher than he intended, but his hunger was almost out of his control.
Ilya watched her breath catch as a delicate flush swept from the modest cut of the neckline of her dress to the roots of her hair.
“I’m still married…”
“I wouldn’t care if he still slept in your bed and had never thought to betray you as he did. I’d still do whatever I had to, just for one night with you.” He’d never killed a man to have a woman, but Ilya was terribly afraid he’d kill one to have this woman. But in doing so, he’d be signing her execution orders.
Her heart was racing now, the pulse at the side of her neck throbbing with either excitement or trepidation. She’d do well to fear him rather than want him.
“Dragon,” she whispered, surprising him when her hand lifted, her palm settling against the short cut of his beard. “Good night.”
He let her turn away. He actually let her take a single step into the house before he was behind her. Pushing the door closed, he had her in his arms, her back against the wall, her surprised breath parting her lips even as he took them in a kiss he swore would mark his soul.
His tongue swept past her lips and the sweet taste of her went to his head as her instant response sent a bolt of pure lust to his already painfully engorged cock.
As short as she was, she fit him. As tender, as fragile, as she was, she met his kiss with a depth of need he hadn’t seen in her. Her arms around his neck, her body arching against him, she held on to him with feminine hunger and a hint of desperation.
“No.” As quickly as she gave to him, she jerked her lips from his, her cry a sound of regret, with a hint of tears.
Her hands slid to his chest, resting there, neither pushing him away nor pulling him to her as her forehead rested between them.
“Don’t,” she whispered again. “Please don’t do this to me. I can’t do this.”
Because she was married and even if he wasn’t an honorable man, she was an honorable woman.
“One day, I’ll be back,” he said softly, the words spoken against the softness of her hair. “Stay away from me when that day comes, Emma Jane. Stay far away from me if you don’t want me to share your bed. Otherwise, I swear to you, you won’t keep me out of it. And I’ll hurt both of us then.”
He released her while he still could. Letting her go, he jerked the door open and walked away.
“Goodbye, Dragon…” he heard her whisper as he left, and he knew it wasn’t goodbye.
He had every intention of returning.
Emma Jane Preston wasn’t certain what brought her awake, but between one second and the next she was fully aware, heart pounding, her mouth dry in fear.
She wasn’t prone to night terrors, nor was she often plagued by nightmares. At twenty-seven, she’d known her fair share of heartbreaks and, since her divorce, faced enough nights so that the creaks of the house no longer sent her imagination spinning.
This wasn’t a creaking house or her wayward imagination. This was something else. It was something more.
This was a full-on panic attack with no rhyme or reason.
It was asleep one second, fight or flight in the next.
Sitting up, she stared around her bedroom. The pretty white curtains and lace sheers, pale gray walls, and heavy chestnut chest and dresser her mother had given her loomed as dark
Everything seemed fine. But the stillness of the night was too damned still.
Damn, she knew she’d set the alarms on the new security system before going to bed. If someone had tried to enter the house, the shrieking blast of sound would be deafening.
But there were no alarms going off. There was nothing but complete silence.
Sliding from the bed, she hurriedly pulled on the pale peach robe that matched her gown and grabbed her cell phone from the bedside table and the handgun she kept beside it. Her father had made her promise she’d keep the weapon handy at night.
Standing by the bed, she fought to hear something, anything to explain her fear.
She’d never awakened like this, even during the worst years of her marriage. She’d never been this scared in her whole life. So scared that instinct kicked in.
Moving soundlessly into the bathroom, she hit her father’s number on the phone and waited, listening careful. He answered on the second ring and just as quickly she disconnected the phone before sliding over the edge of her garden tub.
She listened, not that she could hear anything over the rapid thud of her heart, but she tried anyway. And all the while she was cursing herself for not taking her brother up on his offer to loan her that maniac Rottweiler of his.
And she still hadn’t heard anything.
Not a creak of the floorboards, or the normal sounds of someone breaking in. Sounds like glass shattering, or whatever accompanied someone invading a home.
It wasn’t like she had experience in this. No one had ever broken in on her before.
God help that demented ex-husband of hers if it was him. She’d shoot him just for being the dick he was in scaring the life out of her.
But Matt wasn’t a quiet person. He wouldn’t go to the trouble to sneak anywhere. He’d be banging on her door. And he wouldn’t have a clue how to get past her security.
Maybe it was her imagination.
LORA LEIGH SERIES:
Other author's books:
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