Midnight Fever, p.1Lisa Marie Rice
Other Books by Lisa Marie Rice
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“You’re a hard woman to catch, Dr. Hudson,” Nick Mancino said, smiling. Well, not really smiling, more like a baring of teeth. His dark eyes seemed to penetrate her head. “Missed you by five minutes in DC.”
Kay Hudson suppressed a sigh as she looked at the handsome face scowling at her. It would be easier if he weren’t right. She had been avoiding him, though not because she didn’t want to see him. Nope. He’d featured in many erotic dreams. They’d been dancing around each other for months and it was entirely her fault that this was the first time they were actually together in the same room.
And what a room—elegant, hushed, candlelit. The Lounge offered the finest food in the Pacific Northwest. She’d eaten here several times before with her good friend, Felicity Ward. They’d laughed and eaten superbly well.
Not that she was hungry. Her stomach cramped with anxiety and the thought of food was slightly nauseating. She hadn’t even been able to order her meal, something she usually enjoyed.
Nick had missed her by five minutes in DC. Yeah. She’d gotten word that Nick was arriving and had escaped out the back door as he walked in the front. And she’d deliberately come into Portland last month the day after he’d left for a job. She’d been avoiding him for a while now.
Not because she wanted to. God no. Who wouldn’t want Nick Mancino? Just look at him, she thought. He was elegantly dressed—definitely in her honor because she knew he preferred sweats and jeans—but the white Armani shirt, Versace tie and blue-black Hugo Boss suit couldn’t hide the fact that that hard body wasn’t meant for boardroom suites. It was meant for midnight raids.
Nick exuded toughness and self-reliance, the kind of guy who wouldn’t back down from anything. More than capable of defending himself. No one needed to protect Nick, least of all her.
In ordinary times, at least.
There wasn’t any physical danger Nick would refuse to meet, but there was the question of fairness. Nick had had a brilliant career by being smart and brave and amazingly hard-working. He’d become a Navy SEAL and then a member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team.
Such hard things to do. They were things he’d earned a million times over. She didn’t want to hurt a career he’d worked so hard for.
As long as he was in the FBI, she could ruin his life with what she was doing. If things went south, she might have to run for her life, and every single person she’d had dealings with before disappearing would have their lives turned inside out. He’d live under a perpetual cloud. It would ruin his career.
But Nick wasn’t with the FBI anymore. As of last week, he was with Alpha Security International, a big security company in Portland. A good place to be, with good people. Felicity worked there, and said that the bosses at ASI were reasonable men. Nick would definitely not be penalized by an association with her. Not at ASI. They’d be on her side, and his. So now she could allow herself contact with him. Briefly.
Nick was still airing his grievances. “And I missed you by about an hour in New York last month.”
“Mm.” That had been careful timing, too. Nick had been on a job and had found out from her grandfather that she was in New York. She’d checked out of the hotel early, missing him by half an hour.
“I could almost think you’re avoiding me, Dr. Hudson.”
His tone dripped sarcasm. The “Doctor” was overkill. Particularly considering the incendiary kiss they’d shared back when Nick was helping to save her beloved grandfather, who’d been kidnapped by a former Russian FSB officer. He’d moved his lips to her ear and breathed “Kay,” and every hair on her body had stood up. It would have gone beyond that kiss—which had almost been enough to give her an orgasm—straight into sex, but she had put a stop to it. Wrong time. Wrong place. She’d been worried sick about her grandfather.
But sex was definitely in the cards.
They were off to a good start. He was interested, she was interested.
As a matter of fact, she’d never been as aroused and attracted to a man like she was to Nick. He fascinated her. And—icing on the cake—she liked him. A lot. And—the cherry on the icing on the cake—he wasn’t a jerk. So, she made room to have Nick Mancino in her life.
Then her professional life blew up in her face. Each time she ran away from him it was because something scary was happening. Something that showed that things were very wrong in her world.
“Not avoiding you, Nick,” she lied, looking him straight in the face.
His eyes were mesmerizing. Dark and intense, set in a dark and intense face.
He stared at her as if she were under interrogation. He was good at interrogations, too, a master. She was a scientist and had no clue how to dissemble.
Too much. His intensity was too much. Kay dropped her own gaze and watched the patterns her fork tines made in the damask tablecloth. This was painful. She could actually feel her heart hurting, like someone was crushing it under an immense weight.
Nick reached over and placed his hand on hers, stilling it. His hand was fascinating. Dark and calloused and sinewy with strength, nicked with scars. He’d already had two careers as a warrior and was starting a third. He was a warrior in every line of his body. He was walking testosterone and oozed it out of every pore. Even his hands.
Kay was under intense pressure, about to do something that would blow her existence to smithereens. These past weeks, as she’d contemplated steps that would ruin her life, perhaps forever, she’d remained calm. All the permutations of the steps she had to take had been slowly and carefully considered.
Her job sometimes required that she hold pipettes of nature’s most dangerous creations in her steady hands. In a level-4 biolab, with clumsy, thick rubber gloves, she handled life’s worst enemies—pipettes of Ebola, Marburg, rabies. It was possible that one day she’d be asked to handle smallpox, and she’d be okay with it. But this? Nick Mancino’s rough, scarred hand over hers? It made her tremble.
She finally looked up, met his eyes.
“You have been avoiding me, Kay,” Nick repeated. His jaw muscles clenched. “Don’t deny it.”
She couldn’t deny it anymore, because it was true. There was nothing she could say that wasn’t a lie. Nick was a walking lie detector, anyway. He could smell lies at a hundred paces, like sharks could smell blood in the water.
Kay opened her mouth and then closed it. She huffed out a breath, tried to smile, looked him in the eyes. “I’m here now.”
Nick blinked and a slow smile grew on his face. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the back of it. “Yes, you are.”
He could feel her hand trembling, she knew. Nothing escaped his notice. He’d been a SEAL and then a member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. He wasn’t going to miss the fact that the hand he was holding was shaking.
Looking away from him was impossible.
“May I top you up?” Kay jumped at the intrusion. The waiter, hovering. He’d introduced himself when they’d arrived, but she couldn’t remember his name. She could barely remember her own.
“Thanks.” Nick leaned to one side as the waiter poured another glass of an excellent merlot and waited for Kay’s glass to be filled again. She took a sip, barely tasting it, then another. And another. Dutch courage, her grandfather called it. God knew she needed any kind of co
“Your antipasti will be coming shortly,” the waiter offered in a delicious Italian accent that might even have been real. You never knew. He had Italian good looks—thick black hair shaved at the sides and luxuriant on top, sharp cheekbones, a soul patch, brown eyes with ridiculously long lashes, which he actually batted at her. His eyes twinkled.
A real hipster hottie.
She looked from him back to Nick, whose eyes weren’t twinkling at all, and who had absolutely nothing trendy about him. Clean-shaven, short-buzzed hair and he definitely wasn’t batting his eyelashes at her. As a matter of fact, he was staring at her narrow-eyed.
It wasn’t even a contest, she thought. The waiter thought he was cute, but he looked like a puppy next to Nick. Maybe even from a different, wussier species.
“Fine.” She smiled, forcing the edges of her lips up, trying to remember how to smile. She’d almost forgotten how. There hadn’t been much to smile at these past weeks.
The server glided away and reappeared two minutes later, sliding long white porcelain rectangles filled with tiny bruschette, fried stuffed olives, sage fritters, ramekins of goat cheese soufflé and tiny pesto-filled mozzarella balls. Nick didn’t say a word and didn’t break eye contact with her as the plates were placed in the center of the table.
They sat there, staring at each other, until the server discreetly coughed. Kay glanced away from Nick. It was surprisingly hard to do, like wrenching something that was stuck. Nick was an eye magnet.
Two small square hors d’oeuvre plates appeared in front of them. “Enjoy,” the server said, a trace of irony in his voice.
Yeah, that was the kicker. She’d been avoiding Nick, trying her best not to even think of him, and by rights, she shouldn’t even be here this evening. She had something dangerous to do tomorrow morning, and then she would probably disappear forever, and why the hell had she agreed to dinner with Nick?
Because, well, she enjoyed the hell out of him. Her grandfather was FBI, her father had been a judge, so she was used to tough guys, but Nick was something else entirely. Like he’d invented the tough guy persona—super tough, capable, absolutely mesmerizing. When she was with him, he threw a force field of sex and protection around her. It was as if he bent gravity. She’d loved every single second she’d ever spent with him and she’d thought of him constantly, even while running away from him.
Nick picked up his fork, speared a mozzarella ball and frowned at her. “Eat,” he growled.
She sighed, picked up her own fork, put a hot stuffed olive on her plate and pushed it around. Her stomach was closed, there was no way she could eat anything. Every muscle in her body was tense, tightly knitted. It felt that if she put food down her throat, it would just bounce right back out.
He made a gesture and she put the olive in her mouth. Chewed. Swallowed. It was delicious, a little ball of warmth sliding down her gullet and into her closed stomach, which opened, just a little.
“Drink,” he growled, and she took a sip of wine, which tasted like sunshine and joy.
He narrowed his eyes at her, only gleaming darkness showing. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Yes, it was hard. This whole thing was hard.
God, he looked so amazingly sexy. The soft overhead lighting picked out the edges to his face, his hair so black it looked faintly blue. He was so fixed on her it felt like a spotlight had been turned on. Kay wasn’t used to being under the intense focus of a man like this—usually she was the focus of bland attention by bland males. Fellow scientists, the odd pharmaceutical company executive or CDC manager. All men who basically found money or power or science more interesting than she was.
Nick was hotly focused on her.
Nick was the most fascinating man she’d ever met, she was half in love with him, and she was going to take a leap into an abyss from which she might never return.
She looked up, frowning. Nick had put down his fork and gently pinched her chin. He rotated her head left and right, checking her out. His scowl was gone, replaced by something that looked like worry. Only that was crazy. Nick Mancino didn’t do worry. Everything in his world was under his control.
His eyes held hers. “What’s wrong?” That deep voice was gentle, and for some insane reason, she had to blink back tears.
She tried the smile again. Practice makes perfect. “Nothing.” She lifted her head, hoping to escape those strong fingers, but he held fast to her chin. He wasn’t hurting her but he wasn’t letting go either.
“Bullshit,” he said, his voice still gentle.
This was a very bad mistake. She should go before she broke down in tears and told him everything. Which would be an even worse mistake, because Nick Mancino would not approve of what she was about to do, and when he disapproved of something, there were consequences.
So—get out of here, fast, she told herself, running through possible excuses that didn’t sound insane. Headache, stomach ache, vague female complaint. That last one should do it. No guy wants details on female problems.
“I, ah.” She coughed to loosen a tight throat. “I don’t feel too well. I think I should go.”
Nick barely registered her words. He was studying her face the way a sniper studies the battlefield. “You don’t look well,” he said finally. “You’ve got bags under your eyes and you’re very pale underneath your makeup. God knows you’re still beautiful—nothing less than a gunny sack over your head would change that—but there’s something wrong.” He drew his hand away slowly, making it a caress. “What’s wrong, honey?”
Kay blinked. Her heart had given a huge thump in her chest when he’d used the term of endearment. Oh God. This was getting out of control. She should get up right now and walk out. Nick wouldn’t follow her if she made it clear that she didn’t want him to. But that was the thing—she wasn’t capable of simply getting up and leaving. And she was certainly incapable of pretending she didn’t care about him. In her state, nerves on edge, with sleepless nights and worry gnawing at her every single moment, she didn’t have the strength to pull it off.
But she had to do something. She’d found it possible to resist tough-guy Nick, but this gentle Nick, dark eyes watching her with sympathy and something else… Nope. Couldn’t do it. The truth was out of the question, but she could skirt it.
“Work,” she said, her voice slightly hoarse. She cleared it. “Work. I’m having some issues at work.”
His black eyebrows drew together. “Considering what you do, that’s really alarming.”
You have no idea, Nick, she thought. “It’s more admin stuff than anything else,” she lied. “My boss is being…difficult and is making my life hard. It’s a little depressing.”
Depressing didn’t begin to cover it. She might have stumbled upon a plan to burn down the world.
“I’m good with guns,” Nick said. Which was an understatement. He’d been a sniper as a SEAL and as an FBI HRT guy. “Want me to shoot that son of a bitch who’s bothering you? Say the word and consider it done.” His face was entirely deadpan, as was his voice.
Kay hesitated a beat then smiled. It was shaky, but genuine. “That was a joke,” she said. “Wasn’t it?”
“Nah.” He speared a mozzarella ball and put it up to her lips. “I meant it, but let’s pretend I was joking. Though whoever your boss is, he has worse weapons at his disposal than I do.” He shuddered. “Any guy who deals in smallpox and Ebola scares me more than I could scare him.” He nudged her mouth. “Open up and eat.”
Kay opened her mouth and he gently placed the ball on her tongue. It was delicious and went down like a dream. Her stomach had been closed for weeks, but now it just opened up like a flower.
The entrée arrived. Beef ragout on a bed of pappardelle for Nick. Gorgonzola cheese risotto for her. The dishes looked amazing and smelled even better.
Nick wound strands of pappardelle with ragout around his fork and put it next t
It was the food but it was also Nick himself. He’d offered to off the bad guy and it was such a tempting thought, except she wasn’t too sure who the bad guy was here.
But beyond that, Nick was definitely someone to take your woes to. She couldn’t take this particular woe to him—that was her burden to bear—but in general, he was made to lift burdens from people, and not just with his sniper rifle. There was something about him—that tough guy, protective attitude—that made her feel better.
“Attagirl,” Nick said approvingly when she began to eat. “See what the thought of me whacking your boss does? Brings your appetite right back.”
“That’s more like it,” he said. “I thought you’d forgotten how to smile.”
She’d thought that, too. “Haven’t forgotten,” she said. “Just not much to smile about lately.”
“You shouldn’t have avoided me.” Nick shot her a dark, intense glare. “I’d have made you smile. Guaranteed.”
And just like that, heat shot through her, a scalding wave from head to toe, like a sun blossoming inside her, under her skin. She had very fair skin, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was blushing bright as a stoplight. Though in childhood her skin showed exactly what she was thinking, she’d learned to control it. Or thought she had. And now, just when she needed control most, her fair skin betrayed her.
“You like that thought.” Nick leaned back in his chair, never taking his eyes off her for one second.
Kay closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath, let it out.
“Yes,” she sighed. “Apparently, I do.”
She didn’t dare open her eyes because she knew what she’d see—a smug male face. After a long moment’s silence, she finally opened them and saw Nick looking at her soberly. Not smug, not smirking, even though he’d alluded to…well, to sex. The eight-hundred-pound gorilla at the table.
He drummed his strong, thick fingers on the tablecloth once, eyes dark and serious. “What’s wrong, Kay?” he asked, that deep voice gentle and controlled. “And don’t say you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Midnight Fever by Lisa Marie Rice / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes