by Elle Kennedy
Morgan spoke up before Noelle could. “No need for a hotel. I’ll be staying here with your employer. Just take us to—” He glanced at Noelle. “Where are we going again?”
Her lips went so tight they nearly disappeared off her pretty face. But just as he expected, she didn’t challenge him. Noelle would never allow herself to appear undermined in front of her staff.
“The Nuit Rouge, Frédéric. Thank you.” Then she pressed a button on the door and the partition swooped right back up.
“What the fuck kind of game are you playing?” she demanded.
“No game. I just think your house is super-duper cozy and I sure don’t want to leave it,” he replied with saccharine sarcasm. “Got a problem with that?”
She glowered at him. “Yes.”
“Tough cookies. Because I’m not going anywhere.”
Her hand played with the bottom of her dress again, as if she were contemplating pulling out her pistol and using it on him, but after a beat, she laid her hand flat on her thigh and turned to him with a thoughtful expression.
“If you want my help, just ask for it.”
He arched a brow. “Who says that’s what I want?”
“Why else are you forcing yourself into my life?”
“Maybe I just like spending time with you.”
A genuine laugh popped out of her mouth. “Bullshit. You hate being around me as much as I hate being around you.”
His lips twitched. “You’re right. That was a load of bull.”
“So then man up and ask me to help you find the person who hired me.”
“Are you offering?”
“Nope. But I might consider it.”
Son of a bitch. Nothing was ever easy with this woman.
Morgan spoke through clenched teeth. “Will you help me track him down?”
“I’ll think about it.” She shrugged. “Maybe if you ask me nicely next time and say please.”
Whatever. That was good enough for now. At the moment, he was more interested to know why she’d gotten dolled up and was apparently hitting a club.
“So why are we going to the Nuit Rouge? You tracking a target?”
“Just feel like dancing.”
He narrowed his eyes. “That’s it? You just want to go dancing?”
“I happen to enjoy it. I do have interests outside of killing scumbags, you know.”
A thread of discomfort coiled around his throat. She did like to dance—he remembered that now. All those little details about her were stored in a deep abyss in his brain, banished from thought and locked down tight, but they’d started floating to the surface ever since Noelle and her operatives had gotten entangled with his team.
He wondered if she still liked watching old black-and-white movies late at night. Or if she still liked her steaks rare. If she still added a shit ton of salt to everything she ate. Did she still go for a run every time it rained?
He could never ask her, of course. Noelle would take any interest on his part as a sign of weakness. And it would be.
Christ, it’d be so much easier if he didn’t have those memories. That way he could just hate her, destroy her, end her life without ever having known the taste of her lips, or the way she felt naked and writhing beneath him.
They didn’t speak for the rest of the car ride, and when the Lincoln came to a stop twenty minutes later, Noelle was out of the car in the blink of an eye. He suspected she was trying to ditch him, but Morgan was a trained soldier, which meant he was capable of moving just as fast. He stayed on her six as she brazenly bypassed the mile-long line of hopeful clubgoers, and marched right up to the red steel door.
A monstrous bouncer with a deep scowl manned the entrance, but his meaty hand immediately unclipped the velvet rope at Noelle’s approach.
“Est-il avec vous?” the bouncer barked.
She glanced over her shoulder, her expression flickering with aggravation when she realized Morgan was directly behind her.
“Oui,” she said tersely, then strode through the door.
Morgan followed her into the club and let his eyes adjust to the sudden darkness. A heavy bass line pounded in the shadowy corridor, and the intermittent flash of strobe lights illuminated the path to the main floor. This time, Noelle did manage to lose him—before he could even blink, she darted toward the red-and-white-checkered floor and was swallowed up by the crowd of dancers.
Ah well. He knew he’d spot her again sooner or later. In that boner-inducing dress of hers, she’d be hard to miss.
Morgan drifted over to the bar spanning one black-painted wall. He ordered a beer, then turned to face the dance floor, his gaze seeking out his prey.
And there she was. Dancing, just like she’d claimed she came here to do. Her curvy hips undulated as she moved to the music, slender arms raised, firm ass rolling sensually. The techno beat blasting out of the speakers made it impossible to hear anything but the relentless drum and bass and the shrill synthesizers. It wasn’t Morgan’s kind of music—he preferred classic rock or easy blues, not this headache-inducing bullshit.
Noelle didn’t seem to mind it. She stayed on the floor while he leaned against the counter and sipped his beer. And he wasn’t the only one watching her. Every male gaze seemed to be glued to the beautiful blonde. She drew men to her like a flame luring a moth. A hot flame of seduction, igniting every libido in the club.
But she didn’t accept any offers to dance; she simply turned from the flock of men who approached her, spinning around and flitting away each time a new bachelor joined the fold.
Morgan kept watching as one song ended and another began. She was up to something. He could feel it in his bones.
Sure enough, the suspicion was confirmed a minute later, when a tall, muscular man stepped onto the floor and moved with purpose toward Noelle.
The newcomer came up behind her—and she let him. She ground her ass against the man’s groin, allowing his hands to slide down her body and grip her hips.
Morgan’s nostrils flared with derision as he studied Noelle’s dance partner. Dude looked like a total creep with his slicked-back hair, sharp features, and lips that were far too pouty to belong on a man’s face. His getup consisted of tight leather pants and a black wifebeater, and only added to the slimebag vibe he was broadcasting.
What was the damn woman up to?
It pissed him off that he couldn’t figure it out. He usually had no trouble getting inside Noelle’s head and intuiting her next move, but tonight he was drawing a blank.
The shrill female voice had him jerking his head to the side. He glanced at the dark-haired woman who’d sidled up to him, then gave a brisk shake of the head.
As the brunette slunk off in disappointment, he refocused his attention on the dance floor, but Noelle and her slimebag were gone.
Where the hell were they?
His shoulders went rigid as he scanned the crowded club. He didn’t spot them in the throng of dancers. Didn’t see them near the DJ platform. They weren’t in the bar area, and they wouldn’t have been able to head out the door without crossing his line of sight, which left only one option—the shadowy corridor leading to the restrooms.
Setting his jaw, Morgan left his beer on the counter and marched toward the rear of the club. He dodged a group of inebriated young men, waved off several offers to dance from eager women. When he finally ducked into the back hallway, he discovered two long lines leading into each of the restrooms, but no sign of Noelle and the creep.
He assessed the narrow space, catching sight of the closed door with a succinct French sign: SUPPLIES—KEEP OUT.
His right hand tingled with the urge to reach for the Sig tucked into his waistband, but he kept his arms at his sides as he approached the closet. A test of the handle revealed the door was unlo
cked. Hmmm. Noelle had gotten sloppy.
Or not, he discovered a moment later, after he’d opened the door a crack and noted that the padlock on the interior handle was broken.
He quietly slid into a room that was bathed in darkness and much larger than he’d anticipated. As his eyes adjusted, he could see rows and rows of metal racks that took up the space, shelves lined with cleaning supplies, bags of cocktail napkins, and random storage items.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end when he heard a low male groan. Followed by a female purr of pleasure that hardened his veins to ice.
For fuck’s sake, was she screwing the loser in a goddamn supply closet?
A rustling noise broke the silence, the unmistakable sound of a zipper dragging down, and then a metal clatter and a soft giggle, as if someone—a curvy female body, perhaps—had been backed into a rack by an overeager lover.
Morgan’s jaw was so tense his teeth started to hurt. He took a step forward, then stopped, forcing his scuffed-up boots to remain planted in place. Fuck it. If Noelle wanted to get drilled by a creep who didn’t know how to use hair gel in moderation, then fine. It was none of his damn business.
He had just taken two steps back to the door when the horrified male expletive echoed in the darkness.
This time he didn’t hesitate—he drew his weapon and crept down one of the aisles, just as a loud thump reached his ears. When he turned the corner and reached his targets, the sight he encountered made him gape.
“You really don’t know how to mind your own business, do you?” Noelle said in a dry voice.
Morgan stared at the dead body lying on the cement floor, then focused on the woman kneeling beside it. Without waiting for a response, Noelle stuck her hand in the stiff’s front pocket and pulled out a ziplocked plastic Baggie full of white powder.
“Hold on to this for me? I didn’t bring a purse and this needs to look like a robbery.”
The bag came sailing in his direction. Morgan caught it on instinct, all the while blinking at the macabre scene before him.
A puddle of blood pooled around the dead man’s head, courtesy of the sharp blade that had pierced his jugular. Noelle must have had that deadly six-incher stashed on her other thigh, the crazy bitch. And evidently she wasn’t overly attached to the knife, because she gracefully rose to her feet, leaving the blade lodged in her prey’s throat.
Morgan finally found his voice. “Should I even ask?”
She shrugged. “Marcel here was pissing off some very important people by dealing coke in their territory. He really should have known better.”
“So tonight was a job after all.”
“Obviously.” She brushed past him, fixing the bottom of her dress as she walked.
When she realized he hadn’t moved, she halted in her stiletto tracks and tossed a mild look over her shoulder. “You coming, Jim?”
Swallowing, he spared one last look at the lifeless body sprawled on the ground, then followed Noelle to the door.
Nineteen years ago
With a bored look, René zipped up his pants and glanced at the bed. “Say one word to your mother about this and I’ll kill you both. Understand?”
“Yes,” Noelle whispered.
She waited until her stepfather had left the bedroom before allowing the anger to surface. She’d learned not to reveal her fury during their encounters. That only made the beatings worse.
Now, with the door closed, the impotent rage bubbled over. It burned her throat, tingled in her palms, surged through her blood.
She was going to kill the bastard. Goddamn it, she was. But not until she came up with a foolproof plan, one that didn’t result in her behind bars.
Dad can help.
She immediately banished the thought and stumbled off the sweat-soaked mattress. No, she would never go to her father for help. He couldn’t know about René. Ever.
She ran into her private bath, bare feet slapping the white marble floor. Like the rest of the house, the bathroom was the epitome of elegance. Noelle ignored the raised bathtub and hurried into the enormous glass shower stall, where she cranked all four showerheads and adjusted the faucet not to warm, but scalding.
It didn’t take long for the blistering hot water to soak her naked body and wash away all traces of René, but it still wasn’t enough. She still had to scrub her skin raw with a scratchy loofah, scouring off the sweat and semen, the sickening scent of his cinnamon-flavored aftershave.
When she finally emerged from the steamy stall, her flesh was red and sore, and the rage sizzling inside her was just as potent as before. Soon, she reminded herself. Soon she’d be out of this hellhole.
But God, a month and a half seemed like a lifetime. A goddamn eternity.
In her bedroom, she grabbed random items of clothing from the antique mahogany armoire, dressing on autopilot, the frantic need to flee taking over. Breathing hard, she swiped her red leather Louis Vuitton purse from the white-upholstered Bergere chair in the corner of the room, then fumbled inside it for her phone and dialed Jim’s number with trembling fingers.
When his husky voice filled her ear, she almost keeled over with relief.
“Can I see you?” she blurted out.
He replied with no hesitation. “Of course. Come to my hotel?”
“I’ll be there soon.”
Noelle hung up and raced out the door, and fifteen minutes later, she was hurrying into the lobby of the Lancaster. The fierce jumble of emotions in her chest hadn’t dulled during the taxi ride over. She was just as mad, just as bitter, and just as ashamed.
She’d run into René and her mother on her way out. The happy couple was going to a charity dinner for the police department, and René had been decked out in full police regalia. The nerve of it made her want to vomit. Two minutes after raping his wife’s daughter, he’d donned his dress uniform and was about to spend the rest of his evening strutting around like a hero and charming rich suckers out of their money so his department could have more tools to catch criminals.
But he was the criminal.
Worse than a criminal. He was a monster.
Noelle’s breathing went shallow, her vision wavering as she ducked into the elevator. She was near tears, and that only made her madder. Her real father didn’t condone tears. He considered them a sign of weakness.
I’m trying, Dad. I’m really trying to be strong.
She choked on the lump in her throat, wishing she could be as tough as her dad, but knowing she wasn’t. Because if she was, she never would have let René lay his revolting hands on her. She would have fought harder and kept him off.
The elevator doors dinged open and she rushed down the carpeted corridor, her gaze homing in on the door of Jim’s suite. The gold-plated numbers were like a shining beacon of salvation. Jim was her salvation. They’d been seeing each other for only two weeks, but she was already dreading the day he had to go back to America. She didn’t want him to leave. She wasn’t sure she’d survive saying good-bye to the gruff, intense soldier she’d come to rely on.
When he opened the door, Noelle launched herself into his arms and buried her face in the crook of his corded neck. She inhaled his spicy, masculine scent, drawing warmth and comfort from his embrace.
“You okay?” He closed the door and led her inside.
She nodded weakly. “I’m fine.”
Jim’s sharp blue eyes searched her face. “No, you’re not. What happened?”
“Nothing.” Averting her gaze, she shrugged out of her peacoat and set it on the arm of the beige sofa.
She sighed. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” she amended. “René was in one of his moods tonight.”
He opened his arms and she stepped into them once more.
l you do something for me?” she asked softly.
“Will you...” She tipped her head so she could meet his eyes, feeling her cheeks flush with embarrassment. “Will you kiss me?”
His expression flickered with reluctance.
“I know you said you wanted to take it slow,” she went on hastily, “but please, Jim, I need this. I need you to make me forget.”
He stayed quiet, but his eyes never left hers. What she saw there only added to her muddled, emotion-ridden state. Reluctance again, but also tenderness. And desperation. Heat. Lots and lots of heat.
“Please,” she whispered.
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Noelle...”
She held her breath, watching his expression go from hesitant to tortured to...defeated.
“Okay,” he murmured. “Okay.”
Her pulse sped up when he touched her chin. His hand was big and warm, his fingers gentle as he dragged them along the curve of her jaw. She parted her lips, anticipation building inside her, but when his mouth finally covered hers, it was like nothing she could have ever imagined.
His lips brushed hers with infinite care, soft and sweet and so thrilling her heart stopped beating for one crazy moment. Then the pressure increased, the tip of his tongue slid inside her mouth, and the kiss went from gentle to downright possessive. She’d kissed boys before, but not like this. Never like this.
Jim’s lips teased and coaxed, his tongue so skillful and demanding she forgot how to breathe. His mouth, hot and wicked, moved over hers, and each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue stirred the fire inside her, until her entire body felt consumed by flames. His stubble scraped her cheeks in the most delicious way, and when he drew her closer so that their chests were flush against each other, she could feel his heart hammering against her breasts.
She kissed him back like a woman starved, taking every ounce of pleasure he had to offer. When her tongue slipped into his mouth so she could do some exploring of her own, Jim’s low groan of approval vibrated between them and made every inch of her melt.
“Christ. Noelle.” He pulled back only to whisper those two passion-laced words, and then he was kissing her again, while his hands traveled down the length of her back and settled over her bottom.