Bonded by Blood
Author:Laurie London

chapter SIX

PIANO MUSIC FROM the foyer wafted into the elegantly appointed ladies’ room where Mackenzie fidgeted in her cocktail dress. If Sam hadn’t backed out at the last minute, she’d have known she had panty lines showing through the delicate green chiffon. Why hadn’t she worn a thong?

She closed herself into a stall, stepped out of her panties and stuffed them into her evening bag. She hoped she wouldn’t have to open it with anyone around. It was one of those crystal-encrusted clamshell-style clutches that puts everything on display when they’re opened, and it was hardly big enough to hold more than a credit card and a lipstick. How would she explain the pair of underwear and the two cell phones?

Slipping her fingers around the second phone, she thought about its owner again. Why had she felt compelled to carry it with her every day since she’d found it?

Today she had even gone to the cell phone store looking for a charger. At first the salesperson had been skeptical. Said the phone must be an advanced prototype because he hadn’t seen one like it before. He was surprised when they found a charger that fit.

She’d thought about just leaving the thing at the store for them to track down the owner. But the salesperson had practically salivated over it and she suddenly didn’t trust him. Or at least that’s what she’d told herself. Her stomach had tied up in nervous little knots at the thought of leaving it, so she’d bought a charger and taken it back home. She was shocked when it powered up.

She opened the device now, held it to her lips and imagined it pressed to its owner’s face, the cool plastic warming against his skin. She didn’t question why she felt the owner was male, she just knew. After stuffing it back into her tiny purse, she exited the ladies’ room.

The crowd at the annual benefit auction for the Northwest Alzheimer’s Foundation was the largest she had seen. Mackenzie had been attending and donating items ever since her mother was diagnosed.

“Mackenzie, I was hoping I’d run into you.” A loud voice behind her caused several people to turn around. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name—Tammy or Terry maybe. “Wow, you’re pretty brave to be wearing a dress like that.”

Mackenzie smoothed a hand over the skirt. It couldn’t be see-through—she’d double-checked that in the restroom. “Is there a problem with it?”

“Totally personal preference, but a simple, non-revealing black is so much more traditional at affairs like this.”

Mackenzie bristled at her patronizing tone of voice. The woman spoke as though she were giving advice to someone who’d never attended a charity auction before. Glancing around, Mackenzie saw plenty of brightly-colored gowns. Most were long, but a few women wore cocktail dresses that fell a few inches above the knee, as well. So what was the big deal?

A waiter walked by with a tray of glasses filled with red wine. Mackenzie grabbed one and swallowed the contents in one gulp as the woman continued talking. Were they serving any appetizers before dinner? She could really use—

“Mackenzie?”

“Sorry, what?” Her mind had been wandering so much lately, probably because she hadn’t been sleeping well.

“I asked if you donated another one of your pieces this year. Landon, darling, Mackenzie here likes to paint horses.”

A tall, balding man stifled a yawn with the back of his hand as he slowly turned around. From the looks of it, he had no idea what Tammy-Terry had said, nor did he care. Mackenzie twirled the stem of the empty wine glass and coughed.

“Um, yes, I did. No horses this time, though. Just a couple of whimsical landscapes and some art lessons.”

“Isn’t that sweet? Speaking of paintings, I’m dying to know. Mrs. Thorn-Steuben tells me you were the model for the nude that Martin Johanovich donated. Is that true? I could never do something like that—take my clothes off for an artist to paint.”

Mackenzie’s face prickled with heat. “Nude painting? I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about. Martin’s a good friend, that’s all.” She pointedly avoided the question. “Oh, I think I see him now. Will you excuse me? Nice meeting you,” she called to Landon as she slipped away.

How had Tammy-Terry heard that? Martin was very discreet and had promised not to reveal that she’d posed as his model. He’d sworn the piece wouldn’t be realistic enough for her to be recognized.

As she made her way across the crowded room, she grabbed another glass of wine. That first one had helped ease the tension she’d been feeling all afternoon. Taking a sip, she felt a calming sensation as the liquid slid down her throat.

Surrounded by a bunch of his adoring fans, Martin smiled at her and excused himself. His work was highly regarded and with his charming personality, he was a darling of the vibrant Seattle art scene and a very popular fixture at local charity events.

“Oh, honey, aren’t you a sight for the visually astute.” He took her hand and spun her around. She was careful to hold the skirt of her dress down. “You look positively radiant. You must share your beauty secrets with me, darling. It’s not fair for you to hoard them all to yourself. And that color screams you, you, you.”

“Not too shockingly green or revealing?”

“Good Lord, no. How’d you get a silly idea like that in your head? You look fab.”

“Thanks, Martin. You’re looking pretty smashing yourself.” He beamed and adjusted his bow tie. Lowering her voice, she said, “Where is that nude? I thought you said I wouldn’t be recognizable.”

“You aren’t, honey. Promise. Why do you ask?”

Mackenzie relayed what Tammy-Terry said.

“Oh, for crying out loud. It must be that gossip, Mrs. Thorn-Steuben. She arrived at my studio right after you left our last sitting. Did you see her? When she saw the painting I was working on, she must’ve put two and two together. It really is not noticeable that it’s you…only someone who knows your lovely back would recognize it. Go see for yourself. It’s right over there.” He nodded his head to the right. “Are you here alone?”

“Yes, my roommate dogged me at the last minute. Her new boyfriend called and— Well, you know how that is. So it’s just me tonight.”

“Well, then you must join us at our table. We have a few extra seats. Jerry and Craig weren’t able to make it, either. Table Three. Right up front.”

Mackenzie meandered through the silent auction tables, and although she hadn’t planned on bidding, she wrote her auction number on a couple of items. If she was fortunate enough to get something, she’d be excited. If not, then at least she’d have succeeded in bumping up the price and making more money for the Foundation. She saw that her two paintings and the art lessons she’d donated had several bidders already.

The live auction items were set up in the front of the room. A trip for two to Tuscany, a walk-on part in a popular sitcom, a winemaker’s dinner for twelve at a winery. Next to the display for a culinary trip to Paris was the painting of the nude.

Almost life-sized, it had been done on a large canvas using warm-hued oils applied with a palette knife. Martin was right—none of the details were very clear, and for that she was relieved. A group of people had just moved away from it and she stood there alone.

The naked figure on the canvas posed with her back to the viewer, one arm resting on the floor behind her, the other hand entwined in her hair. A gossamer cloth draped over one shoulder, pooling on the foreground in front of her backside. Just a hint of the right breast was visible and the face, turned down, was masked by a cascade of long brown hair.

Although she wasn’t recognizable in the painting, she still felt her temperature rise. Why had she worn this bare-backed dress tonight and pinned her hair to the side over one shoulder? Was everyone noticing the similarities between her back and the one in the painting?

Feeling the heat of someone’s stare, she wished she could loosen her hair and hide behind it. She was about to step away when she felt a tingling, almost a purring, flutter against her temples and the little hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She rubbed her shoulders but realized the sensation was sort of relaxing.

“It’s quite lovely.” The accented voice was deep and rich, and brought to mind dark chocolate melting on the back of her tongue. Goose bumps formed on her arms and she turned to see a man standing a few feet away.

He stood at least a head taller than her, and had dark, shoulder-length hair pulled back by a leather tie. A thick strand in the front had slipped free, as if it had been tied with the nonchalance of someone who knew perfection wasn’t important. She found herself wanting to twist it around her finger and see the tips of her nails peek out from under that thick mane. The crystalline blue of his eyes was a stark contrast to a dark fringe of lashes as he looked down at her with an air of familiarity.

God, did she know him from somewhere? Surely she’d remember meeting a man like him if she had.

Those eyes, those beautiful eyes, flanked by a few lines that suggested living rather than time, raked the inner recesses of her mind. They were gentle now, but somehow she knew they could be cruel. She took a step backward on her teetering heels, her heart hammering two staccatos—one in her head and the other in her chest.

Although his attire was more casual than the stiff tuxedos sported by most of the men in attendance, he carried himself with a grace and ease that exuded confidence. He wore a brushed silk T-shirt that draped luxuriously over tailored charcoal slacks. With a black leather coat tossed easily over one arm and a hint of stubble peppering his jaw, he looked more like he belonged on a movie screen than at a charity event. Her mouth went suddenly dry and she licked her lips.

With one brow lifted, he looked at her quizzically. God, had he asked her something?

“The painting?”

“Oh, yes.” What about the painting?

“I find it very lovely.” As he stepped closer, the heat from his body warmed her bare shoulders and the two internal drumbeats evolved into one sound. She reached a hand up and rubbed her neck. Wasn’t this the same—

“Are you familiar with the piece?” He nodded toward the canvas but didn’t take his eyes off of her.

If she stretched out her hand, she could touch his chest, he was that close. Stroke his jaw, brush a thumb over his lips. Oh God, what was she thinking? She dug her nails into the palms of her hands to keep her thoughts from wandering where they shouldn’t.

His warm breath lifted a stray wisp of her hair on the back of her neck as she turned toward the painting. When his fingertips grazed down the back of her arm to guide her forward, a jolt of electricity left a trail of heat on her skin. She found herself inching closer to him, almost instinctively, as if her body knew this man though her mind did not.

“Um, yes. My friend Martin painted it.”

“I find it absolutely captivating. It’s gorgeous. I’m Dominic Serrano, but please call me Dom.” He extended his hand and she noted he wore a thick, filigree ring on each thumb.

“Mackenzie Foster-Shaw. It’s nice to meet you. Yes, Martin is an amazingly gifted artist.” The bracelets on her wrist jingled together as she took his hand in hers.

With the touch, she felt instantly alive. Every nerve ending danced as her palm pressed to his. The background piano music, which she’d hardly noticed before, seemed to morph into a tender melody. The room sparkled with prisms of candlelight reflected off the chandeliers above. Everything looked so different. How could she not have seen the room like this before?

He released her abruptly and turned back toward the painting, his expression composed, measured.

Normally, she’d have filled the void with some sort of mindless chatter, but now she felt no need. Calm and relaxed, she waited.

“Such rich colors he used. The ethereal light.” She could get lost in the sound of his voice. “The echoing lines of the composition. From the arc of her neck, along her back to the draping fabric over her shoulder.” As he spoke, he reached his hand out and traced the lines in the air, his long fingers caressing the space in front of them. Her breath rasped unevenly in her chest. It was as if he were running his hands over her bare skin. “From her breast to the curve of her legs and buttocks. I find it very enchanting. Almost seductive. Yes, your friend Martin is very talented, but he had an equally exquisite subject.”

She stepped forward and silently read the title of the piece.

“What is it called?”

He was right there. He could read it himself, but she did what he asked.

“Where Are You, My Love.”

I am where you are. The words chimed in her head. She glanced at him but his face was unreadable.

How would his arms feel around her? Would she fit beneath his chin like a puzzle piece? He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, his stare never dropping from her face. Feeling a tiny trickle of heat between her legs, she cursed inwardly for not wearing a thong.

Sweet Jesus.

That voice again. Although his lips didn’t move, she knew it was his. It rang in her head and echoed in her ears. The darkened room seemed to spin as if they were in the middle of a vortex. The clinking of wineglasses, the low din of conversation, the lovely chords of the piano—everything faded around them.

As if in slow motion, he stepped in front of her so she had to tilt her chin up to meet his gaze. Another inch or two and her nipples, covered only in thin folds of green chiffon, would have brushed against the fabric of his shirt. Her body trembled in anticipation.

“I know you, don’t I?”

His jaw flexed as he stared at her, his eyes an unfathomable glacier blue, terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Without thinking, she reached up to brush a stray lock of hair from his face, her fingertips a whisper against his temple, and her palm molded softly to his cheek.

He caught her wrist roughly, lowering it to her side, and his mouth hardened as if he were biting back the urge to say something cruel. Fury and something else smoldered in his eyes as his pupils dilated, leaving only a ring of that icy blue.

What the hell? Don’t pupils usually shrink to pinpricks when you’re pissed?

Danger lurked behind those now-dark eyes, and she took a step back. He looked almost inhuman for a moment. Part of her knew she should be afraid. But she wasn’t. Instead, anger boiled up in her veins, matching what she felt in him.

Why had he grabbed her like that? Why was he looking at her with such intensity? It stirred her dander, like the wind fanning a flame. Evidently it was okay for him to touch her, but not the other way around. Was that it?

Squaring her shoulders, she jerked her hand away. How dare he react to her that way? If there was one thing she’d learned about men from her mother, it was not to take any crap from them. With a huff, she spun on her heel and melted into the crowd.

Forgive me, she imagined him saying.

Go screw yourself, was her imagined reply.

In a daze, she meandered over to the now-closed silent auction tables. People milled about, checking various items to see if their numbers were the winning bids. Three women dressed in sparkling dresses and precarious heels jumped up and down, squealing like schoolgirls. They’d evidently gotten the auction item they had wanted.

What the hell just happened? She felt like she knew this Dom Serrano, had met him before, had encountered his voice, even his thoughts, which was completely insane and made no sense. He was somehow familiar and yet a stranger. The thrumming in her head and chest became more and more mismatched and she almost felt nauseous.

One minute he was making love to her with his words and the next minute he changed into something wild and uncontrollable. Her actions obviously caught him off-guard and pissed him off. What had she done? It was just an innocent touch.

Although she couldn’t deny the attraction, she certainly didn’t have the fortitude for these stupid dating-scene games spurred on by misread sexual desires and hypocritical reactions. She hadn’t behaved too forwardly, had she? Maybe going pantyless had given her some balls.

Her bid number wasn’t the highest on any of the items she’d wanted. She would’ve especially loved that spa day at Ummelina downtown, but she couldn’t justify paying that kind of money for her own indulgence, only for charity. However, given the state of her financial affairs, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t the winning bidder.

She ran into a few more people she knew, friends of her mother’s whom she hadn’t seen in ages. Politely, they inquired about her mother. They continued chatting until the master of ceremonies announced dinner was being served and asked the guests to find their seats.

She zigzagged around the tables, looking for Number Three. Martin had said it was up front. She stiffened and nearly turned around when she saw a familiar figure seated at a table near the stage. Martin jumped up and ran toward her.

“Darling, I hope you don’t mind, but I asked your dishy friend to sit with us. He was stuck clear in the back and was just about to sit next to Mrs. Thorn-Steuben when I rescued him.” He grabbed her elbow and urged her forward. “He tried to protest, but I insisted. Here, right this way.”

Dom stood up as she approached, pulling out the chair next to him. As she took her seat, she jutted her chin out and ignored him. He held her napkin out for her and she yanked it from his grasp. Did he think she was a ditzy fool? That she could be swayed by a momentary act of politeness? She’d make him regret his bad attitude.

With her back to him, she offered her hand to the woman on her right. “I’m Mackenzie Foster-Shaw. You must be a friend of Martin’s?”

“Janet Forrest.” The woman gripped Mackenzie’s fingertips in the gentle handshake of the upper class. “And this is my husband, Ernie.” Mackenzie reached a hand over and the portly man clasped it in the same manner. “It’s so nice to meet you. Yes, we’re friends of Martin’s. We’ve got many of his pieces in our collection, don’t we, dear?”

“Which ones? I’m quite familiar with his entire body of work.”

As they ate their salads, the woman told her about each piece in detail and Mackenzie nodded appreciatively. She felt the heat from Dom’s eyes on her back and she purposely played with a lock of her hair and twirled the stem of her wineglass. She was so not going to turn around.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Forrest said. “Here I am droning on and on about myself. How about you? How do you know Martin?”

Before Mackenzie could reply, Martin’s voice boomed from behind her. She turned around and saw Dom staring at her through lowered lids. He looked dreamy and way too sensuous. Dragging her gaze away, she concentrated on Martin.

“Mackenzie was one of my best students at the University of Washington. She’s a talented young artist and I couldn’t bear to let her go at the end of the term. A few years ago I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.” He tilted his head back with an infectious laugh that invited company, and a few others at the table joined in, including Dom. “Right, darling?” Martin asked.

Mackenzie bit back her laughter and smiled awkwardly. All eyes at the table turned to her, but the only set she was aware of was the ice blue pair to her left.

“Martin was kind enough to offer me a job teaching beginning art students—”

“Yes, and she came up with a brilliant lesson plan where she takes them on a walking tour of the various local galleries, then puts what they’ve observed into their own work in the studio. In addition to that—”

“Martin, please.”

Ignoring her protest, he continued. “In addition to being an artist, she’s also a skilled photographer. She works for a location scout in town. You know—movie locations.” Excitement tinged his voice and he sat forward in his seat. Like everyone else, he thought her part-time job was glamorous. If only she felt the same way.

“Oh, how wonderful. That sounds so exciting. Just what does a location photographer do?” Mrs. Forrest leaned forward as well, clasping her gnarled fingers under her chin.

Mackenzie squirmed in her chair and rearranged the food on her plate.

“We get a spec sheet from the production company, spelling out what they’re looking for at each shooting location. I research possible sites, taking pictures and measurements and my boss—my other boss, not him—” she inclined her head in Martin’s direction “—handles all the permits and permissions. Sometimes he has ideas for me but other times, I do the research myself.”

“So what film are you working on now?”

“I’m not allowed to say specifically, but a potential client wants to shoot some scenes at a cemetery. So that’s what I’ve been working on based on their specific needs. I’ve got a few more sites to photograph before I’m done. The port. A beach with a cityscape in the background— I’ll head over to West Seattle for that one. But it’s the cemetery I’m having the most trouble with.” She touched a finger to her forehead, remembering the migraine.

“You’d think that’d be easy,” Dom said. “There are plenty of cemeteries around here.”

Determined to ignore him, she turned to Mrs. Forrest and continued. “It needs to be somewhat dark, very oppressive, and not too far from the city. It’s expensive to take all the film equipment too far.”

“That’s a little frightening, don’t you think?” asked Mrs. Forrest. “How do you do it, dear?”

Mackenzie leaned in and lowered her voice. “When I’m out shooting remote locations, I carry a gun.”

Mrs. Forrest gasped. “Oh, goodness. Do you know how to use the thing?”

“Well, yes. I’ve been using one for years. My mother started taking both me and my brother to the shooting range when we were old enough to legally carry a gun.”

Please stop and move onto someone else. Surely someone else at this table would be more interesting to talk to.

“You must be a terrific shot. Do you have it with you now?”

“No. Not enough room in this little thing.” She winked at Mrs. Forrest and shook her clutch. “And nowhere to strap a holster on this outfit.”

Everyone at the table laughed. Good, now maybe the conversation would turn elsewhere. She threw a glance in Dom’s direction and he looked down his nose at her, his lips turned up as if he was trying not to give her a haughty smile. He was so irritating. She wondered if he practiced. She flipped her hair and turned away.

Words like fascinating and exciting swirled around the table. She shifted her water glass, aligned her fork next to her plate. Taking compliments was not something she was comfortable with, and neither was being the center of attention.

When the conversation thankfully turned to other things, she relaxed against her seat and felt the sudden warmth of Dom’s hand. Every nerve ending jumped to attention. He had casually, maybe even conveniently, laid his arm on the back of her chair. Before she could sit forward, she could’ve sworn he brushed his thumb across her shoulder blade. A trail of sparks lingered on her skin and she shivered involuntarily.

Mrs. Forrest whispered into her ear. “What’s your date’s name? I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten.”

“Dominic…Serrano, I think. But he’s not my date.”

Louder now, Mrs. Forrest said, “Mr. Serrano, what is it that you do? I detect a bit of an accent, though not much. Spanish, is it?”

“My family is originally from Northern Spain—yes. But I’ve lived in the States for years now. I’m surprised you even picked up on it.”

“Ernie and I made the mistake of visiting Madrid during the summer months a few years ago. Remember that, honey? It was so humid…” While Mrs. Forrest continued, Mackenzie sipped her wine, not paying much attention until Dom began to speak.

“I work for a multinational corporation that has contracts with the U.S. government. We have a small presence here locally, but it’s classified, so I really can’t say much about it.”

“Goodness. We’ve got exciting here—” she patted Mackenzie’s hand “—and mysterious there. What a couple you two make. Is your office here in the city?”

Mackenzie bristled. “Careful, he might have to kill you if he tells you.”

Everyone laughed, including Dom, who rested an arm easily over the back of her chair again. She made sure not to lean back this time.

“We maintain a small field office downtown, but the majority of the region’s work is out of British Columbia. I’m in charge of things here in Seattle, and I occasionally work in Portland, Spokane and Boise. But I’m afraid that’s about all I can tell you.” Dom’s smile stretched to his eyes and seemed genuine.

Why did he have to be so charismatic? It’d be much easier to ignore him if he wasn’t. She toyed with the evening bag on her lap, turning it over and over, and the prongs of an embedded crystal caught the chiffon of her skirt. Damn. While Martin talked about one of his recent projects, she picked it loose, but the stupid thing snagged the fabric.

“Why don’t you just put that on the floor beneath your chair?” Dom said. “I’ll make sure no one steals it.”

“Everyone knows it’s bad feng shui to put your purse on the floor.”

“Pardon me?” He sounded amused.

“Purses are never to go on the floor. It encourages money to fly out.”

His faux pained look told her that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. “Who told you that?”

What an asshole. “My mother.”

“And you believe it?”

She gritted her teeth. “It’s a habit, okay. Is that better?”

“Well, here, let me set it on the empty chair beside me, then. We certainly don’t want anything flying out of your purse unexpectedly.”

Oh my God. Even though she was irritated, she almost snorted out loud and had to bite her lip to keep quiet. If only he knew about the panties tucked inside.

“Fine.” Without looking at him, she held out her purse and hoped she came across as indifferent, bored and completely disinterested. She couldn’t care less that he was sitting just inches away from her, that she could feel the heat of his stare on her back and neck, that he was so damn hot. No, she didn’t care at all.

“Did you find any interesting silent auction items?” She directed her attention to the woman sitting across from her. As she replied, Mackenzie found her mind wandering.

You want me, the imaginary voice whispered melodically in her ear, almost as much as I want you.

She stiffened her spine and popped a roasted vegetable into her mouth. What was it with that damned voice in her head? Her stupid wishful thinking. Who cared that she found Dom massively attractive? That she longed to feel his hand sliding along her skin again. His lips against her throat. What the hell was wrong with her? Yes, he was gorgeous, but—

She glanced at him again. He twirled a few strands of pasta on his fork and lifted it to his mouth. As his lips closed over the utensil, he looked up at her and their eyes locked. His jaw flexed as he chewed slowly, then swallowed, never dropping his gaze from her face.

The fluttering of her heart belied her cool exterior.

Too much wine. She pushed the glass away to reach for her water, but the base of the stemware caught on a fold of the tablecloth and slipped from her fingers. In an instant, Dom’s hand was there and caught the glass before a drop was spilled.

How did he move so fast? I’ve had way too much to drink.

“Finished?”

She nodded her head. With a lift of his brow, he held the wineglass in front of him in a silent toast.

To the most enticingly beautiful female I’ve ever met, the imaginary voice spoke in her head.

To the most infuriating male.

She thought she saw the corner of his mouth twitch just before he took a sip from her glass, which really made no sense. Better switch to water only.

When the live auction started, the energy in the room ratcheted up. As the auctioneer called out dollar amounts in a dizzying frenzy, people laughed and shrieked, urging the bidding higher and higher. Mackenzie’s head began to swim with too much wine and thoughts of the exorbitant amounts of money people were spending.

After excusing herself, she skirted around the tables, a little wobbly on her heels, and headed to the ladies’ room. She dampened a hand cloth with cool water and held it to her neck and wrists. She leaned against the basin and waited until the cloth was no longer cold. Although refreshed, she still felt a little light-headed. A glance in the mirror showed she needed lipstick, but she’d left that damn little purse back at the table. Hopefully Martin was keeping an eye on it, because she really needed some fresh air. She straightened her dress, smoothed her hair and left the restroom.

THE AUCTIONEER’S SING-SONG voice clipped along at a rapid pace, barking out increasingly higher dollar amounts, and with every lift of a bidder’s paddle, the crowd whooped even louder.

Dom kept an eye on the archway leading toward the restrooms and the rooftop terrace and sensed Mackenzie wasn’t far away.

“Sold to number one-ninety-three.”

While the next item was being readied, Dom leaned toward Martin and casually slipped his leather coat over Mackenzie’s evening bag on the chair beside him.

“So tell me about your painting, Martin. It’s her, isn’t it?”

Before he could reply, two burly men in tuxedos lifted the nude painting up at the front of the room so that everyone could see, and the auctioneer began to read the description. Martin stood up as the spotlight trained on him and when he bowed to the applause, Dom reached a hand under his coat and opened Mackenzie’s purse.

Quickly locating the damaged phone, his hand touched upon a silky piece of fabric. She didn’t seem like a handkerchief sort of woman, so he peered under the coat. Sweet Jesus. A pair of dark purple lace panties were wrapped around his phone. His cock shifted against his thigh for the millionth time tonight. So that was what she’d meant when he detected her thoughts about panties. He rubbed his fingers briefly against the lace before he snapped the purse shut, tucked the phone away and discreetly rearranged himself. Again. She wasn’t planning on going home with one of these bozos, was she? His pupils dilated and he ran a finger under the suddenly tight collar of his shirt.

“How did you know?” Martin sat down as the bidding started. “Did she tell you? Or did Mrs. Thorn-Steuben?”

“Who? No. Those sweeping, graceful lines of the composition could only belong to her. Although your piece is gorgeous and you’re quite talented, it’s not even a fraction as beautiful as the real thing.”

Several people around the room raised their bidders’ paddles as the tempo of the auctioneer’s calls increased, and Dom glanced around. A horse-faced letch with oversized teeth, a slovenly old man with a blond trophy wife, a barely-out-of-puberty dot-com geek. Damn if he was going to let anyone else have that painting.

He raised his paddle, doubled the current amount, and the crowd went wild. The Bill Gates lookalike had the nerve to bid again and when Dom doubled the amount a second time, the whole place gasped in a collective orgasm.

“Sold to number three-twenty-two.”

It’s about time. He tossed his number on Mackenzie’s empty chair, gathered up his coat and her purse, and put a hand on Martin’s shoulder. “Do me a favor. Don’t tell her it was me.”

“Why? She’ll be thrilled it went for so much. The Alzheimer’s Foundation is a cause she cares deeply about.”

“Trust me. I can sense these things. She’d be angry and would think I— Just don’t, all right? I’m going to be out of town for a while. Can you arrange delivery in a couple of weeks?”

“You bet.” Martin flipped him a business card. “Just call when you get back and I’ll have everything arranged with our installation boys.”

ON THE DECK of the rooftop terrace, the lights of the Space Needle twinkled against the ink black sky. Sea air from Elliott Bay blew into Mackenzie’s face, cooling her heat-flushed cheeks, and her hair swirled around wildly. The melancholy cawing of a seagull sounded in the distance and a ferry with its lights ablaze headed toward one of the islands. She heard footsteps behind her and her neck began to tingle.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?”

She turned and faced Dom. His eyes were shadowed, unreadable.

“That’s the second time you’ve said that tonight. Need a thesaurus?”

He laughed then—a deep resonant laugh, the kind she imagined she’d never tire of hearing—and handed over her evening bag.

“Here, you left this at the table.”

Well, that was considerate. She took it from him and set it on a nearby cocktail table, not wanting the thing to snag her dress again.

“And I’ve said it many more times in my head tonight,” he continued. “I don’t have a problem with redundancy. Would you prefer gorgeous, exquisite, beautiful, magnificent?”

“Whatever. Is this the part where you suddenly get mad again and look like you could eat me alive? You must have some serious anger management issues. That, or you’re totally manic.”

“Perhaps, but I do know what I want.” He slid his hands down the backs of her arms and grasped her balled fists. Her knees almost buckled as he slowly brought her hands to his lips and kissed the inside of each wrist.

“Just so you know, in case you’re wondering,” she said huskily, “I find pricks really unattractive.”

He rubbed the tip of his nose against the delicate flesh and she shivered. She should pull away, right now, leave the terrace, get back to the auction.

With his eyes closed, he took a deep breath, as if he was savoring the fresh sea air. When he opened them, his pupils were dilated again. How strange—she’d never seen eyes like his before. He looked eager, and yes, almost hungry, but not angry like he had before. His expression was softer, almost gentle.

“I’m terribly sorry if I came off as rude earlier. I know I did. You are just so startlingly beautiful, it caught me off-guard and I lost my head for a moment. Normally I’m much more…in control of myself than that.”

She raised her eyebrows. What an odd thing to say. “I had no idea I’d elicit such bizarre responses from people with what I wore tonight. Maybe I should’ve come in jeans.”

“That wouldn’t have made a difference. Forgive me.” There was an edge to his voice and the moment the words tumbled out, he scowled.

In a sudden burst of courage, she steeled her shoulders and turned away to face the city lights again. Forgive him? “I’ll think about it.”

Neither spoke for a moment, just looked out at the water and the lights twinkling on the distant shore of Bainbridge Island and the peninsula. But her brain didn’t register much except for a strange but delightful sound flickering in her head and the warmth emanating from his body. The little hairs on her skin stood on end as if they were reaching out, pulling her toward him.

“Will this take long? Your thinking?” His voice whispered roughly in her ear. “Is there anything I can do to change your mind?”

The backs of his fingers brushed aside a few wind whipped pieces of hair from her shoulder and when his warm breath heated her skin and his lips grazed her neck, she had to lock her knees to keep from wobbling.

She was strong, but not that strong. He was so damn hot and she hadn’t felt a man against her in ages. What harm would there be in a little kiss? Even though it really wasn’t like her, she turned to face him again and snaked her arms around his neck. What the hell. She could suspend her better judgment for tonight and imagine his apology was sincere.

His mouth crushed against hers, parting her lips, and she felt the tip of his tongue. Oh God, he tasted so good. She melted into him, her fingers twining around his ponytail, as if they operated independently of her brain.

Through the haze of all the wine, she knew she was capable of getting carried away, succumbing to more than just his kisses. Maybe she should just walk away. Right now, before things got really out of hand.

Yeah, right. Everything about him was perfect. The taste of him, the smell of his hair, the feel of his chest against hers and the way his urgent hands caressed the bare skin of her back. Although she remembered drinking only a couple glasses of wine, she had to be drunk because his overwhelming presence muddled her rational sensibilities until she doubted she possessed the strength to pull away from him.

Not that she really wanted to. If she couldn’t have long-term happiness, what would be the harm in a little short-term fun? She might be tipsy, but at least she was still practical. And who better to be practical with than someone like Dom?

His warm palm slipped down her back, lower until it cupped her bottom, molding her body to his. His length was a steel ridge against her stomach, and for some outrageous reason, she rocked her hips, imagining no fabric between them.

He froze. His hands and lips stopped moving along her skin. With her eyes closed, she could sense the tension in his face, in his body, as if it was her own. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Shhh. Hold very still.” His voice came out in a ragged whisper.

They stood that way, clasped together, for what seemed like an eternity. She barely felt him breathing. Then it hit her. Was he about to have an orgasm? Fully clothed? Was that even possible for a man?

She could’ve sworn she felt the rumble of laughter in his chest. The tension seemed to melt away beneath her fingertips, and when his lips caressed her skin more fervently than before, it was as if he’d been rejuvenated. She ran her hands through his hair, the leather cord loosened, and his dark locks spilled down around her upturned face.

He kissed her neck, her hair, her shoulders with such intensity, she wasn’t entirely sure she could get him to stop if she wanted him to. A delicious chill, almost a numbness, radiated outward wherever his lips touched. Did he just graze his teeth along her sensitive skin? The blood sped through her veins and she clutched the muscles of his arms a little tighter, felt her nails dig into him, drawing him even closer. With a swift movement, he cupped her buttocks again, but this time he lifted her up and she wrapped her legs around his waist. She was vaguely aware of her no-panty situation but didn’t care at that point. She was hungry for him and any misgivings had thawed with that first kiss.

He stepped toward a darkened back wall, ran his hand up her thigh and hesitated. “Are you okay with this?”

How could she not be? Did she act like she wasn’t? “Yes,” she mumbled against his lips and grabbed his hair in her fist. “I want you. I want this.”

He didn’t act surprised when he encountered no panties, his fingers easily finding her delicate cleft, slipping carefully inside. She moaned into his mouth as he explored her sensitive folds, the pad of his thumb massaging her flesh. The feeling was so sudden, so intense, it almost hurt.

The night air, the city sounds, the cold wall against her back. Gone. The only sensations she was conscious of were those caused by him as he touched her. “Dios mio.” He spoke so softly, almost to himself. “I can hardly believe…”

Her body rocked automatically against his hand and he mirrored her movement. Already slickened and ready from the drawn-out foreplay of the evening, she sighed as the night began to crescendo around her.

He pressed his thumb more tightly against her, circled it ever so slightly. “Yes,” he whispered into her ear. “There you go. Give in to what you’re feeling.” Give in to me.

And something inside her broke loose.

An intense surge of pleasure, unlike anything she’d ever felt before, crashed through her. Starting in the center of her body, where his fingers were, it shot upward, outward until she felt she might burst. Somehow, through it all, her legs with their silver-heeled shoes stayed clasped around his waist.

When she finished trembling, he gently lowered her to the ground, as if he knew her knees were capable of buckling. She wasn’t entirely sure she could stand on her own after that. He brushed a few loose strands of hair from her shoulder and placed his lips there—not moving, not kissing. In small little circles, he ran the tip of his tongue along her flesh like he was tasting her and when he pulled away, cool air chilled the lingering moistness. Needing him to stay close, she ran her fingers along his scalp to keep his mouth there. She wasn’t done with him, but she wasn’t sure what she was craving. Only that she needed more. He raised his head, his shoulders stiffened slightly and he held her out at arm’s length.

Apart from him, she was cold. She wanted to see his expression, read what he was thinking, but his face was hidden in shadow.

Of course. It was his turn now. How could she be so completely absorbed in her own needs? She bent to unzip his pants but he clasped her wrists and straightened her up.

“Just you tonight. I can wait.”

“Wait?” What does he mean by wait? As in not right now? As in yes, but later?

A hint of anxiety gnawed at her stomach—her conscience? She’d never gone home with someone she just met, let alone experienced an orgasm like that, or offered oral sex to a man who was a perfect stranger mere hours ago.

The muscles of his arms bulged beneath her palms and strange feelings tightened around her insides like a fist. Maybe she wasn’t reading him correctly. He was apprehensive for some reason.

Was it simply an excuse to get her to stop? God, he wasn’t married, was he?

At that moment, the door opened with a bang and two couples stumbled onto the rooftop terrace. One of the women erupted with laughter when her companion dropped his wineglass onto the concrete floor with a crash. Sounds of music and clinking silverware wafted through the opening.

Mackenzie tore away from his embrace and grabbed her handbag. “I should go. Martin’s probably wondering where I am.”

She cast a glance over her shoulder as she reached for the door handle. Dom remained near the back wall, the orange light from an overhead infrared heater giving his features an eerie glow while the rest of his body all but faded into the shadows. It was obvious he wasn’t going to stop her, so she swallowed her disappointment and pulled open the door.

“There is no one else,” she thought he said, although she could’ve sworn she didn’t see his lips move.

UNDER A BURNED-OUT streetlight on the other side of Fifth Avenue, Dom leaned a hip on the hood of the Porsche parked halfway down the block and watched as Mackenzie stepped through the revolving doors of the Columbia Center building and into the taxi line. Perfect. He’d wait for her to jump into one of the yellow cabs, then get the phone to the Agency’s tech lab only an hour late. Santiago should be satisfied with that.

He took a deep breath to filter the smells and detected nothing unusual. His olfactory receptors weren’t nearly as sensitive as Lily’s—he smelled only the salty air rolling off the bay and the wet roadway—but he wouldn’t relax until he knew Mackenzie was safely on her way home. His hair whipped across his face, still loose from when she pulled out the leather tie. When he brushed it away, he caught a whiff of her musky, exotic scent still on his fingers and the blood rushed to his cock yet again.

Another chilly burst of wind whistled up the city street and the skirt of her flimsy dress Marilyn Monroed. With a little shriek, she caught it just in time and laughed with the people standing around her. Something tugged at his insides and for an instant he wished he were over there, sharing in that silly moment with her. She flung her wool coat around her shoulders and when a taxi pulled away, she moved to the front of the line.

Aware of a faint throbbing, like the pulse of a vein behind his eyes, he shook his head to clear away the sensation, but it didn’t change. It neither lessened nor intensified. Of course. He jammed his hands into his pockets. This was her headache, not his. Her blood levels still weren’t what they should be. Combined with the several glasses of wine she’d drunk tonight, she undoubtedly felt like hell. All because of him.

Finally, another cab pulled up, blocking everything but her face from his view. He could stretch out his senses to her, get her to look down here, her gaze meeting his one last time. But he didn’t.

Goodbye, Mackenzie.

And her taxi drove away.