It's a little-known fact that when vampires fly, they hog the window seats.
I saw Nikos the instant I boarded the plane. Well, who could miss those immense shoulders and hewn cheekbones, that aggressive jaw?
He'd cut his dark hair ruthlessly short since I'd last seen him--heaven forbid it display any softness with its curls. He had the kind of remorselessly perfect features that could withstand even the unforgiving scrutiny of a high-resolution camera lens. A perfect, sculpted body too, although that wasn't my medium. I'd have loved to photograph him as King Leonidas, fatally wounded but still roaring as he charged, unyielding, into battle.
Nikos sat in 3F, first window seat on the right, and you're probably way ahead of me when I say I suspected he was a vampire. Although sat isn't quite the right word. He dominated the entire space, not only his seat but the empty one next to it, his large body relaxed but impeccably groomed in a tailored charcoal suit, snow white shirt and crimson silk tie. He was absorbed in his netbook and didn't see me.
I checked my ticket but I already knew it was 32D, my bra size. At the time I thought that was lucky. Should have known better.
I wanted to join him in the worst way--despite the kind of reception I knew I'd get. The first time I'd met him, in November, I'd practically throttled my friend Nixie to get an introduction to the gorgeous Colossus of Rhodes standing astride his half of the room. He'd said one word--a drawled "Giasou" sounding sexy as hell but which I found out later was only hello--given me a curt nod and walked away. Nixie called him Spartacus in a suit. To my mind that was too civilized. He was massive, muscular and severely reserved.
Every time I'd made an overture he'd dismissed me with a few well-chosen words. It only sank my fascination deeper. I was reduced to needling him whenever I saw him, just to get a reaction.
A quick scan showed no one was boarding behind me. The flight, Chicago to New York, was half empty. Well. Here was a two-hour opportunity marked 3E. I slid in and opened my mouth to make a smartass crack.
Without looking he said, "Don't."
My mouth dropped open. "You can't know who I am."
The corner of his lips twitched. "Don't, Twyla." He still hadn't looked.
I humphed back into the seat. "I don't know how you do that. The whole identity-without-looking thing."
"Good peripheral vision." He still hadn't acknowledged my existence, damn him. At least not with his eyes. He had the sexiest eyes, velvet brown framed by glossy obsidian lashes and brows. Brooding bedroom eyes. I really wanted him to look at me.
"Aren't you going to ask what I'm doing here?" Look at me. Come on. Just once.
He exhaled audibly, in another man a heavy sigh, and closed his netbook. Without a word he hit me with his full attention.
Nikos didn't use a lot of words but he didn't need them. Not when he could express whole paragraphs with those compelling eyes.
This look said I was walking uncomfortably near some line. Nikos had a lot of lines, all hidden. If you shot a marble in on one side of his personality, instead of coming out the other it would bounce on secret internal walls and shoot out in some unpredictable way. I suspected some of those ways were deadly.
A frisson ran through me. Not fear exactly, but maybe heightened awareness. I covered it with words. "Well, if you had asked, I'd say I'm seeing Broadway shows." I stuffed my carry-on between my feet. "And drinking too much liquor and dancing through at least two pairs of Kenneth Cole heels. And I'd say I'm going to celebrate New Year's in Times Square by kissing as many hottie guys as I can find."
His jaw tightened ever so slightly at that, though it may have been my hopeful imagination. Of course he didn't say anything.
Up to me to carry the conversational ball. "So what are you doing here, Nikos?"
"Business." He reopened his netbook.
Without thinking, I slapped it shut. His head came up so fast I only registered it after the fact. His eyes were sable daggers. Scary how something so drooling-gorgeous could be so incredibly deadly. I patted the netbook, withdrew my hand.
"Twyla." He plucked a magazine from the rack and shoved it into my hands. "Read."
Nikos-speak for enough. After the dagger-glare treatment any sane person would have dropped it. Obviously he did not know who he was dealing with. I set phasers on needle. "I'd rather look outside. Mind if I open the window shade?" Whatcha gonna do now, Mr. Taciturn Vampire? I reached over him for the tab. I didn't think sunshine'd really make him fry, but I was counting on some sort of reaction.
He caught my wrist without even moving. And of course without looking. "Leave the shade alone."
Ooh, four words in a row. I was on a roll. "It'll keep me from bothering you." I reached for the shade with my other hand.
He swept it out of the air with two fingers--of his same hand. Both my wrists were caught, one snared in forefinger and thumb, the other between palm and two fingers. Damn, the man had big hands.
Made me kinda shivery. "You're on business? I thought you helped Julian Emerson manage those two teeny townhouses in Meiers Corners. What business would you have in New York? Unless you're a lawyer too?"
"No." He released me and went back to his netbook.
If our conversation were a ball, he'd not only dropped it, he'd punched a hole in it and squashed it flat. Luckily I had conversation for both of us. "I'm going to see my cousin. I did him a big favor and he invited me to visit him in return." I waited for a response or an "uh-huh" or even a dark glare.
Futile, of course. Fine. Conversation enough for both of us would have to be literal. I pitched my voice low. "What favor, Twyla?" Resetting to me I answered, "I'm glad you asked, Nikos. As executive admin for the mayor of Meiers Corners, I'm a bit of a bureaucratic whiz, and I cut some red tape for him with an international company." I dropped back to Nikos's deep growl. "Uh-huh. Tell me more."
A corner of his mouth twitched. The man--or a bit more--had burnt umber lips etched with the accuracy of a cursive italic nib. I wanted to kiss them in the worst way.
"Don't," he said again.
"I wasn't going to make a snarky comment."
"I know." His lids closed slowly. "Don't look at me like that."
Ooh, six words. And he'd caught my heated interest. Maybe that even meant he was interested in return. I was making progress.
A shrill soprano drilled through my optimism. "You there! You black woman, what are you doing here? That's my seat."
The woman shooting eye-darts at me combined the worst attributes of a dentist and a diva. She was painful, impossible to ignore, and a lot of designers had died to cover her bony ass.
I pointed at the six empty seats across the aisle. "Can't you--"
Diva Dentist whirled front. "Stewardess, I demand you deal with this woman. She doesn't belong in first class."
I knew it wasn't me. I take care of my face and figure, dress well, do my nails.
So it was my skin.
I'm half-African, half-German and all-American. Prejudice is something I deal with. Some people can't help it, being stuck in the last century, poor things. As my Grandma Ngozi said, "As a crab walks, so walk its children." Grandma Tafel said, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Since maybe only one percent of the population is unaware of the Emancipation Proclamation, I clamped my teeth against an acid response.
To my surprise Nikos defended me. "Color is skin deep. Rudeness goes to the core." He leveled Diva Dentist with a flat stare that had me shitting ice, and I was only on the periphery. Diva fell back.
A flight attendant stepped between us and stuck a hand toward me. "Your ticket?"
Given enough time I could make any bureaucratic tangle come out my way. But why was I fighting? To sit with a man--not man--who would say all of ten words to me for the entire trip?
Of course, he wouldn't have to speak to kiss me.
Wishful thinking, Twyla. I rose, gathered my carry-on and started toward the back. Nikos followed. I did a double-take. "Seeing me to my seat? Or do you have to go potty?"
"Sorry about that."
"Oh. I deal." But it was nice he cared.
"Where's your seat--" His voice dropped into a low growl. His sculpted features hardened to granite. His eyes blazed persimmon fire and his lips thinned as if the words he was pressing back were actual physical knives. I followed his gaze, turned to see the man in 32F.
Watching us both was a golden supermodel.
Blond hair curled boyishly around a lean, tanned face. Cobalt blue eyes twinkled with merriment. Rich amaranth lips, almost feminine in their lushness, parted in an amused smile to reveal titanium white teeth. His toned figure showed to perfection in golf shirt and linen pants. A little lightweight for winter, though. Maybe younger than the thirty he looked, still caught in style over substance.
"Well, hello." Modelboy patted the seat next to him. "My name is Klaus. Join me, lovely lady."
Lovely lady. I was going to New York looking for excitement. Klaus promised some real fun. He might even talk with me.
On the one hand, Nikos was the guy I lusted after. And since he lived in Meiers Corners, lust could turn into a long-term affair--not that I thought I'd get Happily Ever After. I wasn't real big into overachievement.
On the other hand, even though Nikos made my booty burn he avoided me like tofu salad. Thanks to Diva Dentist, I couldn't sit by him. And the way he reacted to Klaus, no way Nikos was going to sit here. We could have both moved but I wasn't going to suggest it.
The loudspeaker rasped on. "Please take your seats." Time to pick or pass, as Grandma Tafel would say. So. Modelboy in the hand vs. Spartan in the bush. Maybe I wasn't going to get HEA, but I was damned sure going to get me some Happily For Now. I slid into 32E.
As I stuffed my bag under the seat in front, I caught sight of Nikos's clenching fingers. Damn, the man had fine hands. And he was upset--good. So was I. I know that wasn't fair but this was my vacation. When the flight attendant came to personally tell him to take his seat, I lifted my chin, pasted a smile on my face and waved buh-bye.
After a few more finger-clenches, Nikos spun and strode away. Modelboy stuck out his tongue at Nikos's broad departing back.
Then Klaus turned to me, took my chin with the tips of his slender fingers. "What is your name, lovely lady?"
The sensation of his skin sliding against mine was delightful. "Twyla." I wasn't entirely surprised when my voice came out a purr. Modelboy's lime-leather scent really revved my engine, although I suspected it was Nikos who'd actually cranked it in the first place.
"And why are you visiting New York, beautiful Twyla?" His thumb stroked my jaw.
I closed my eyes to enjoy the warmth, the friction. "Who says I'm visiting? Maybe it's home."
"Your accent says otherwise." The plane started moving. "You have lovely skin. Cinnamon cream. And such a long, delightful neck." His fingers trickled down my throat. "Your accent is Midwest. Middle-class suburban."
"You so sure youself, honey-chile," I murmured back. I'd grown up dealing with a lot of people's misconceptions, and I'd made it my goal to master every one. "I'ze jus' a gal from Jawja."
"Really? Well, I know the ultimate test." He kissed me.
His mouth slid over mine like cool silk. His tongue brushed my lips, delved into the crease. I tasted mint and the promise of heat. Pursing my lips into soft pillows, I let him taste me in return.
Klaus didn't lose any time taking me up on my invitation, his mouth parting, pressing more intimately against mine. The plane built up speed on the runway. My heart sped up with it.
He licked the seam of my mouth with increasing urgency. The instant I opened, his tongue darted in with a rush of heat. We took off, and the plane lifted too. Klaus sure fired up fast. I liked that in a man.
My ears popped and I backed off slightly, took in the model-perfect face before me. Klaus's eyes blazed cobalt from beneath heavy lids. Oh, yeah, he was aroused all right.
I wondered how Nikos's sable brown eyes would look heavy lidded with desire.
Damn. Not going there. I glanced at the window to see how high we'd gotten but the shade was drawn. I reached for it.
"Twyla." Klaus laid a long-fingered hand on my forearm. "Have you been initiated into the mile-high club?"
"Not...not yet." My voice was suddenly breathy. The whole point of this trip was to push some limits but I didn't generally sleep around. Was I ready for this?
Grandma Ngozi would say, "History was not made by quiet women." Come to think of it, Grandma Tafel would say that too. And besides, I had deliberately not worn panties because I was looking for excitement. It didn't get much more exciting than this.
I gave Klaus a slow smile. "But I'm hoping to remedy that."
His answering smile was sensual. "Here's what we'll do. You go to the bathroom on the right."
As he spoke his hand cupped my breast, thumb teasing the nipple. It was a little fast, but I went with it. Carpe tittum, or seize the tit, right? Good thing, because the sensations built quickly into hot need. I slid a hand down his stomach in return, feeling all those lovely ridges. "Okay. I go into the bathroom. And wait for your knock? Two short, one long?" My fingers slipped under his waistband.
"One long. Very long." His belly rippled as he breathed faster. "Just leave the door unlocked. I'll be right behind you."
"Ooh, behind." I imagined Modelboy grabbing my hips with his strong slim fingers, taking me in one very long slick stroke. Pictured me hanging onto the sink, tilting my butt up for his driving goodness. I threw off my seatbelt and jumped to my feet so fast I hit my head on the overhead rack. "Ow."
"Careful." His sensual lips tilted into a half-smile so lush that his mouth looked like a big cerise peony. Maybe I'd sit on the throne and those lips could bloom on my pussy.
Of course, if it were Nikos doing it, it wouldn't be flower power, it'd be all-out war. His big, hot mouth gobbling--I grabbed a seatback at the sudden need knifing me.
Klaus's nostrils flared. He came fluidly to his feet. "Hurry."
Yeah, I was ready for this. Ignoring the lit seatbelt sign I staggered back into the small cubicle. The roar of the plane, already loud in the tail, heightened into a rushing that filled my ears. My mood cooled. I wondered if this was such a good idea.
Too late. The door cracked open.
And slammed shut. A smack was followed by scuffling. By female feet running, and a squeak. A woman said, "Gentlemen, please! The captain has not taken the seatbelt sign off. Return to your seats at once."
"I'm going to the bathroom." Klaus.
"No. You. Are. Not." To my utter shock the deep growl answering him was Nikos. His clipped words told me he was furious.
"She's not yours, Greek boy."
"Nor yours, Aryan."
Hands clapped for attention. "Gentlemen. I insist you take your seats, now."
I waited, all arousal gone, for signs that it was okay to come out. I waited until the soft ding and the captain's soothing voice told me it was safe to take off my seat belt. For me it would probably have been safer to put it on.
I crept out of the bathroom and crawled back to my seat. Klaus faced the shaded window. As I slid into 36D, leaving the space of a seat between us, I felt eyes on me, hot and angry. I jerked around.
In 36B, heavy arms crossed over jutting chest, taking up the space of two seats, was Nikos. He watched us like a chaperone the rest of the trip. No, like a babysitter.
He didn't say one word but his eyes said plenty. Ice-cold anger. Rebuke. Disappointment in me. Damn, that man--probably not man--could communicate more condemnation in a single glare than most people could with a whip and a chair. Although thinking of Nikos with a whip, in nothing but black leather--his nostrils flared and he cleared his throat, quite pointedly. I tugged a magazine from the seatback and occupied myself flipping pages.
When we landed, Nikos still didn't say any words. But his lethal glare at Klaus, the way he yanked my carry-on out before we'd come to a full and complete stop, the way he tugged me one-handed out of my seat when I unbuckled my belt, shouted possession. Odd, considering he usually ignored me. But it also gave me a primitive thrill.
Klaus rose and, ignoring Nikos, offered me his arm. "Share a ride with me, pretty lady?"
Before I could speak Nikos tucked me into his side. "No."
Klaus and Nikos locked eyes. Klaus wavered slightly. Maybe Nikos was drawing lines again. Whatever Klaus saw made him step back, jaw working. "You may try to claim her. But you cannot stop her from choosing elsewhere."
There were times I felt trivial. This was one. "Hey. I'm right here."
"I see you, beautiful." Klaus touched slim fingertips to my cheek. "It's this barbarian--"
Nikos growled. He palmed my head away from Klaus, tucking it between truly spectacular pectorals, the silk of his tie whispering against my cheek.
Klaus made a primitive sound. "She's not--"
"She is." Nikos's rumble vibrated my whole head. Before I could even try to figure out what that exchange meant, hot fingers tilted my head back. I saw Nikos's face, all severe beauty, zooming in--
He kissed me.
There was nothing tentative or gentle about Nikos's kiss. His mouth took mine in full, virile possession. His tongue drove between my teeth, forcing me to open. Thrusting masculine fire filled me. I had time to think sweet Lord, this is passion when he jerked and pushed me away.
I stumbled for balance, grabbed the nearest seatback. My thudding heart fanned arousal into anger. "What was that macho bullshit?"
Nikos seized my elbow, hustled me past a stunned Klaus down the mostly deserted aisle. While the boys had been doing their little dominance dance, the plane had emptied. Nikos dragged me out, down the ramp, his heavy tread making it shudder. "Twyla. You're not riding with him."
"That's my say, isn't it?" Despite my anger I was amazed. Six whole words. Must be really overcome with emotion. "It's up to me if I want to go with Klaus."
"You don't know what he is." His jaw worked. "You can't know."
"For pity's sake. What Klaus is? Is he a male prostitute or something? Because, gotta tell you Nikos, a hot time is exactly what I'm looking for." In the waiting area now, I tried to shake loose but Nikos's fingers held like steel. "So unless you're gonna follow up on that admittedly hot kiss, I'm picking Modelboy." I started to stomp back.
And swung around like a bola when he didn't let go. Looked like I'd have to be a bit trickier. I feinted forward. When he moved with me, I twisted back. The element of surprise would pop me loose...his grip shifted, held.
Damn. No time to be subtle. Strong as Nikos was, subtle would get me loose late next year.
I pivoted and kicked him in the danglies.
He blocked. Instead of privates I kicked solid bone and muscle. His reaction was so fast, so smooth, I knew he was trained even better than I was. In fact I got the distinct impression he could have caught my leg and done me some damage rather than the other way around.
Which meant using a super-secret girl-move. I grabbed his ear to lever his head down and smacked a big smoochie square on his lips. While he was momentarily distracted I twisted out of his grip and ran.
He caught me in two steps, seized me by my shoulders and spun me to him. He bent so we were nose to nose. "Violent thing, aren't you?"
"No." My breath was coming in gasps, and not because of the fighting. A lot of male muscle surrounded me, and a perfect burnt umber mouth moved scant inches from mine. "It's just that you aren't built for negotiating." I licked my lips. "Not real chatty."
People streamed around us, intent on their destination. If anything shouted I wasn't in the Midwest it was the rapid rush of texture. I registered it all as a blur around the focal point of Nikos's uncompromising face.
This male had been painted with a palette of strong colors. Jet hair. Ochre skin with undertones of midnight, shading at rugged cheekbones and lips to mahogany and burnt umber (a misleading name, since it evokes images of blackened toast instead of a rich, rose-infused brown). Eyes the seal brown of soft sable brushes focused on my mouth.
Which was throbbing. My lips, hell, my whole body was throbbing. Under the hot scrutiny of those bedroom eyes my heart started pounding so hard my ears rang.
"All right." The sound of his voice was a faraway hiss. But the feel of his rumble against my breast, the blazing promise in his eyes shook my bones.
"All right?" I echoed. I didn't know what the question was.
"Hot time. Limo." His tongue slid provocatively from between his lips. Made a yum-yum motion while his eyes told me exactly where he'd yum-yum.
I choked. "Limo. Right." I took off for the front door.
He caught my elbow, swung me around. "This way."
He led me through a space marked "Private" into an underground parking area. A stretch limo with mirrored windows was waiting. He shoveled me in.
And promptly positioned himself on the other side, barricading himself with crossed arms.
"Hey. Hot time?" The limo moved out.
I sputtered. "You lied? Led me on?" I was upset, most of it disappointment in not getting any with Nikos. I lashed out. "If you don't want me, just say so."
"I want you." The flat, angry look in his eyes contradicted him.
"Sure you want me. You're so all over me. Been practically my second skin since day one because you want me so much. Oh, no wait. You've been avoiding me."
"I have my reasons." The limo started crawling through Queens traffic.
"Which are? Not going to say? Then let me guess. You don't like black chicks. Or a mere secretary isn't good enough for you. Or--"
"Stop what? Telling the truth? Don't like it, white boy?"
"Don't denigrate yourself. You're a powerful, highly attractive, frighteningly intelligent woman. Don't you dare pull that race shit."
I was speechless. Nikos thought I was attractive? And all the other good stuff? He must have felt pretty strongly about it because he'd used almost twenty words.
It gave me hope. Maybe he wasn't avoiding me because he hated me, or worse, just didn't care. Maybe it was for the one reason I could do something about. The v-reason. When I finally found my voice, it was embarrassingly plaintive. "Then why won't you even kiss me without pushing me away?"
"It's not you. It's me."
"Please. That's the oldest line--"
"I'm not good for you. Not safe."
Not safe. There is was. "Nikos, you don't have to play that game."
"It's not a game--"
"I know you're a vampire."
This time he was the speechless one, but only for an instant. "You don't know that. You can't."
"Why is Nixie's hubby so good with blood transfusion equipment? Why do Nixie and Julian need not one but two assistants--who are coincidentally inhumanly gorgeous? Why is the mayor ordering as much blood sausage these days as cheese balls? If you're not a vampire, why did you stop me from opening the window blind on the plane? Why the underground exit at the airport and the limo with mirrored windows?"
The hard line of his lips softened. "You think I'm gorgeous?"
Out of everything, he picked that. "Yeah. But you'd be more gorgeous kissing me."
He palmed my cheek. He was so big he didn't even have to scoot closer to do it. "Twyla, guessing vampire isn't the same as knowing. Reality would shock you. Scare you. That's unacceptable." His thumb caressed me, telling me other things.
Ooh, over a dozen words. A whole Shakespeare soliloquy for him. "I'm looking for thrills. So shock me a little." I leaned into his hand.
His head bent, his mouth dropping to my throat. The heat of his breath, the coolness it left on intake, played like an intimate fan on my skin. "I...want to. But--" He straightened. "No. You don't know."
"Then show me." I had a brief internal struggle. I'm not by nature an exhibitionist but something had to be done, quickly, while I had him trapped. Once we got back to Meiers Corners he'd have the whole town in which to hide.
My jacket was already open. I yanked T-shirt and bra up. My breasts popped free, bouncing.
His eyes shot open, blazing sienna. His granite jaw loosened. His chest inflated like he couldn't breathe. And then--
Fangs. I saw fangs.