Noah had a hard time doing anything more complicated than breathing as he stood in an honest-to-God brothel. The place had sexual vibes echoing as if they'd been made yesterday.
"So okay, then. If you need anything else, dial nine on the phone."
Frank waved and left him alone in his room. Finally.
From the moment he'd stepped foot in this town, Noah had sensed the vast history throbbing just under the street's concrete. Impressions of gunslingers, miners, and the occasional drunk strolling through town had told him he'd stepped into another place--time--entirely. Some areas were like that, full of history that reached out and slapped him. But nothing could have prepared him for the impact this building had. Or its manager.
According to the oh-so-helpful Frank, Lara Graham had arrived in town six months ago. She worked for Ida Knowles with the hopeful intent to eventually buy the property. The place had recently begun to prosper as guests from far and wide came to stay in the very place where the lusty madam Cecilia Fine and the infamous outlaw Finnegan Fury had loved and lost back in 1856.
The history of the place seeped through the walls of the building, but it was the image of Lara that had held him fast. She looked exactly like the woman in the portrait he'd been ordered to bring back. A living, breathing work of art come to life. The same full lips curved up in a smile, those expressive, rich brown eyes, so mysterious yet daring. And that body...
He stifled a groan, wishing he'd indulged in some quick, meaningless sex before flying out here. Because a man who hadn't had sex in nearly five months, confronted with even half the things he was now seeing, would be hard-pressed to focus on this case. Downstairs, when he'd looked at Lara's mouth, he'd seen a ghostly overlay of slick, glistening red painted over her lips. Then a woman's transparent tongue had darted out to lick suggestively, hinting at all kinds of things Lara might do for him.
No, not Lara. That other woman. The one from the portrait.
Noah tried to get a handle on his sweltering libido when another image coalesced into a moving picture on his bed.
"Oh fuck. You've got to be kidding me."
Two naked men were all over a woman clad in nothing but garters that held up netted stockings. He had a sense she was a working girl, one of the Lady Fine whores and two of her customers who'd paid for a tumble. Cowboy hats, dusty clothes, and grimy boots lay strewn in one corner, while the rest of the room lay under flickering shadows of candlelight.
As he watched, the noise only he could hear grew louder. Moans and groans, the sucking and smacking sounds of lips over moist flesh. Noah's cock thickened in seconds--already hard from his recent thoughts of Lara--now eager to participate.
Noah liked to watch, and he liked to play--rough. So the sight of one guy's head between the woman's thighs, his cheeks rubbing against her smoky hose while he gorged on a wet cunt, was bad enough. But when the other fucked her face hard enough that she choked around him, Noah had to move to better see the three of them in action.
In and out, the rough guy pushed into the whore's mouth with eager strokes, his balls mashing against her chin with each shove forward. The woman didn't seem to mind it much, or she was that good an actress, because she pulled his thighs toward her, encouraging his advances. She shivered and sucked harder as she made whimpering sounds hinting at a climax. The rough guy stilled and yelled out as he came, then pulled away from her. He stepped back and stood next to Noah, the pair of them keen on the outcome still pending. The man kneeling between the whore's plump thighs reared back, mounted her, and fucked her until he too climaxed.
No condoms, no talking other than grunts and groans. A small pile of coins sat on a washstand across from the iron-post bed, and the creaking of the bedsprings told its own story. After the last man came, he pulled out, and the three lovers smiled at one another.
The ghosts of yesterday vanished until all that remained in the room were Noah, his hard-on, and the same bed soon occupied with new patrons. The scene shifted into another vision of oral sex, this one between two women totally intent on one another. Sixty-nine had become his new favorite number.
Unable to rebuild his shields until he took care of his own needs, Noah grabbed a few tissues, undid his pants, and masturbated to the hottest sex he'd seen in some time. To his annoyance, he kept imagining Lara Graham on her knees, on her back, taking a nipple or a cock between her lips. The urge to dominate Lara, to bend her to his will, tempted him to let loose the bands on his honest needs. The dark desires he normally kept secret threatened to overtake him. Lara, bound and pliant. Submissive, his to play with, his to own... The fantasy only made his rushing orgasm that much more powerful.
Though he didn't want to be here, and he didn't like his odd sense of connection to the woman in the painting--to Lara--he couldn't ignore it. But he could avoid the shame accompanying his base hungers by pretending they didn't exist. Like he always did. At least his release abated the need, if not his desire. But when a new couple materialized, fucking on the floor, he focused hard to will away the visions still pressing his psyche, for fear he might inadvertently seek out Lara to make his fantasies all too real.
Nothing is ever fucking simple when it comes to Jack Keiser's missions.
Noah should have known better. When he'd arrived in Superior two days ago only to find the painting had been stolen, it seemed par for the course that this simple retrieval, like Price and Foreman's own mission two months ago, would be just as complicated. Tracking down the painting hadn't been too difficult, but seeing the identity of the thief hadn't panned out. In his visions of the past, Noah saw nothing but a dark shadow mired in the disappearance--as well as in the death of the painting's last owner.
He grimaced, missing the simplicity of the pioneer mother and her infant son in the parking lot of the gym back in Bend. The minimalism of life before man and civilization encroached on the splendor of the mountains had been a beautiful thing.
The unique perfume of danger and intrigue saturated this case. His fascination with the missing painting bordered on obsessive, and he knew it. But now, having seen Lara, he knew the real thing didn't hold a candle to Emilio Vala's portrait.
A coincidence the inn's manager just happened to be the spitting image of the woman in the portrait? Noah didn't believe in coincidence. There was something going on here, something more he hadn't yet seen. And what about that ghostly image layered over Lara? What the hell had he stumbled onto here? And why had Jack assigned him this case, considering the bevy of talent they had at home?
Nathan could touch an object and know about it and the people who'd touched it. Avery knew the future. Chloe heard truth. Aidan could ferret secrets out of a person's mind. Why send Noah, a man who often lost himself in dreams of the past, on this wild-goose chase? Even after Noah had reported the painting stolen, Jack had insisted he remain on the case. Why? What was his bastard of a boss up to?
An hour later, after cleaning up and lugging his bag up to the room, Noah locked his door before descending the stairs. The noise of people laughing and talking grew as he studied the busy lobby and dining area. A good crowd enjoyed the heady aroma of coffee and sweets, and his stomach rumbled.
Wanting to eat as much as he wanted to find answers, he decided on the quickest way to accomplish both. Sliding through the mass of cheery patrons, he found Lara and Frank comparing notes as they studied the cash register.
"It's Lara, right?"
The pair blinked at him.
Lara blushed and glanced down at some receipts, and Noah would have given a lot to know what she was thinking. Telepathy would have been more than welcome right then. He concentrated on keeping his inner shields taut when a transparent coil of dark hair slithered over her face. A closer study showed her hair held back in a ponytail, though a few strands had escaped that she'd tucked behind her ears--ears studded with familiar rose-shaped silver earrings.
"Hi Noah. Everything okay?"
He blinked, and the earrings vanished. He shored up his internal shields, praying they'd hold.
"Yeah. I'm great, thanks." He shoved his hands into his pockets, wishing he wasn't so awkward around the living. Dead people ignored him but never made him feel unwelcome. The past wasn't choosy about its participants. The present, however, could be brutal. "You think you could show me a good place to get something to eat?"
He sounded harsh, even to his own ears.
"Um, I guess." She sounded hesitant, her eyes searching as she studied him with a curiosity he could all but feel.
Frank gave her a gentle nudge in Noah's direction. "I'll watch over everything here, Lara. Shelly has the evening coffee all taken care of. Why don't you go grab some dinner. You've barely caught a break all day." Frank ran an assessing gaze over Noah. "Take your time. I'll bet a man as big as Noah has a huge appetite."
The red on her cheeks was gratifying. This might be easier than he'd thought. Noah would find the information he needed to get the damn painting, then hightail it home. And maybe take a taste of Lara while he was at it. A gentle, normal, sexual taste. A small test, to prove to himself he could be happy with easy, consensual sex.
"I am a bit hungry." She considered Noah. "Or I can give you directions, if you'd rather. Not everyone likes company, and you've been traveling today. You must be tired."
To his surprise, the exhaustion he might have expected after being up for twenty-four hours didn't register. "I'm good."
She shrugged and drew his attention to her breasts. Nice, just as round and attractive as her fine ass. Noah had more ideas about exploring her body than he did about retrieving the painting, so he forced himself to focus on her face once more. Since she'd been rummaging behind the counter for her jacket, she hadn't noticed his study.
Frank smiled. "Have fun, you two."
Then he wiggled his eyebrows and leered at Noah without a seeming shred of remorse.
Lara shrugged on her thin coat. "Ignore him, and he'll go away. Or so I keep telling myself. It's been six months, and he's still here."
Noah guided her to the front door, his hand on the small of her back. Even covered by a shapeless nylon jacket to ward off the wind, she looked feminine. Not petite, not someone he'd break if he bent her over and gave her a firm smack on the ass, but a woman built to suit a man's needs. He could too easily imagine her dressed in garters and stockings and nothing else. Her panties absent, just those pearl-white cheeks shining back at him as he pushed himself inside her. Then he'd reach around to grab her tits and pinch her nipples hard. She'd cry out for more. With Lara, the rougher the better...
He inwardly cringed, hoping he hadn't said or done anything to draw attention to his raging erection. Fuck, why is this happening now? He'd spent years avoiding this side of himself. So why now? Why here? He could only thank his long coat for disguising his arousal. What the hell was it about this woman that he had constant sex on the brain? He wanted to blame it on the old brothel. But with the exception of Lara's vanishing earrings, the ghosts of the past now remained absent.
Quickly joining her outside, he did his best to ignore the sway of her hips. "Sorry. My mind wandered."
To his relief, she said nothing about his distraction. "You like spicy food?"
"Great. Then you'll like this place."
They walked in companionable silence to a cheerful cafe down the street. Painted in bright colors against an adobe backdrop and brick floor, the small restaurant had plenty of customers when they entered, as well as a smell that made him salivate. Mexican food--his favorite. His stomach chose that minute to growl.
Lara smiled. "Guess you're hungry."
As they took off their jackets and sat, she studied him, and he wondered what she saw. He was about to ask her...something...when the waitress arrived with chips, salsa, and water. She handed them menus and left.
"The enchiladas are my favorite." Lara closed her menu and poured herself some salsa into a small bowl. As she munched on chips, she started in with the questions. "So you're from Oregon?"
He'd been prepared. "I live there now. Pretty area. My parents live out East, but I got tired of all the traffic and hustle."
"I've always lived in Washington, the state, not DC. I moved out here on a whim not long ago and found the inn."
I, not we. She had to be single. She didn't wear a ring. And no way some dumb-ass boyfriend would leave a woman who looked like Lara alone at night to go out with male guests.
He grabbed a chip. "The Lady Fine Inn has a lot of character. Great history to the place." Whores and cowboys galore.
She nodded. They ordered their food and continued with conversation that, to Noah's surprise, felt easy. Nothing as mundane as the weather, their talk veered from the difference in the coasts to exercise and books, what they both liked to indulge in during their spare time.
"So why this place, Lara? What brought you to Brownville?"
Lara sipped her water. "History. Ever since Finnegan Fury became a legend, they've seen a lot of interest in town. Once I heard the love story between the outlaw and the madam, I had to see where it happened myself. Then I found I couldn't leave. The main street, I'm told, used to be really run-down. But the past few years have seen a real turnaround. There are art galleries and shops all over the place. The AP did that story, and tourists started pouring in. Now there's great food, incredible art, a wonderful inn..." She smiled at him, and he smiled back.
"I like it."
"So why are you here?" She dipped her chip and opened her mouth in expectation of food.
But as she did, he swore he heard a woman's suggestive comment. Open wider, sugar, he's a lot bigger than that.
Her eyes widened before her gaze dropped like a stone to her plate, along with her chip. "I didn't say anything." She wouldn't meet his gaze.
The waitress arrived with their dinners. They ate in silence, intent on the savory dishes before them. Then Lara prodded him again.
"So, Noah, why are you in Brownville? You don't seem like a typical art collector or tourist."
"How do I seem?"
"I don't know." She lowered her fork and looked at him. "You're obviously into some kind of physical fitness, but I get a sense of something else. Something academic, maybe."
"Why do you say that?"
"You're intense, quiet. And you listen."
The woman was perceptive. He weighed the consequences of showing his hand too quickly. What the hell, he had nothing to lose but time. "I'm actually a personal trainer. That and a part-time investigator."
Her eyes widened. "Really?"
"Yeah." He reached into his wallet and dug out the picture of the portrait he'd looked at way too often for his peace of mind. "Don't freak when I show you this."
"Why would I?"
He opened the paper and pushed it across the table to her. Watching her reaction, he learned a good bit. She hadn't seen the painting before. And she couldn't stop looking at it. Like him, she was captivated by Vala's work.
"Who is this?" Her eyes darkened with suspicion. "Is this a joke?"
"It's a painting by Emilio Vala called The Lady. You can look him up."
"I will." She quieted as she studied it.
"So you have no idea who she might be?"
"Not a clue."
"Well, if she's not your twin, who do you think it could be?" The research Jack had done had turned up surprisingly nothing on the identity of the woman in the picture.
"I have no idea. Heck, she could be Lady Fine. I've never seen a picture of her, but now that I think about it, this picture matches a few descriptions of her I've read."
"It matches you too." He took a few bites of food, slowing down the conversation. To his surprise, his hunger for dinner had been replaced by his hunger for Lara. "When I saw you earlier, I couldn't believe the similarities. You don't recognize her as a relative, maybe?"
"Sorry. I don't look like anyone in my immediate or distant family that I know of. And before you ask, I'm not adopted." She traced the woman's face with her finger. "Why do you want her?"
Such apt words. The realization bothered him. Noah wanted both the painting and Lara. Sex was all well and good. Noah liked women. He didn't crave anyone in particular. Until Lara. And this is why you need to get laid more often. See what a dry spell will do to you?
He took a long drink of water before answering. "The painting belongs to my client. It was stolen a year ago. My firm tracked it down, but when I went to pick it up, I learned it had been stolen again."
He frowned. "No, I'm not kidding."
"I wasn't being literal. So you think it's here in Brownville?"
"From what I've learned, yeah."
"Well, I can tell you that no one's said anything to me about it. The locals in town take care of each other, and though I'm still the new girl on the block, I've met all the shop owners. Trust me, Brownville thrives on gossip. If anyone had seen your painting, they would have come to tell me about it." Lara traced the picture with a fingertip. "I'm stunned by how alike we look. It's eerie."
"I wouldn't say that." I think she's beautiful. He glanced from the picture to Lara, taken with the hidden depths in her eyes. She held so many secrets, and he had an insane urge to plumb the answers to each one.
At the thought, he clenched his jaw tight and rubbed his eyes. He didn't have the patience for this nonsense. He was here to do a job. Period. Lack of sleep must have finally caught up to him.
"You okay?" Lara covered his hand on the table with her own. The minute they touched, he felt a spark rush through him--familiarity, need, desire.
"Just tired, I guess." He refused to let her sever their touch and grabbed her hand when she would have withdrawn.
He slowly turned her hand over and rubbed his thumb over her palm. The startled expression on her face turned to one of arousal, and it was all Noah could do to keep his calm. Every instinct he possessed demanded he take Lara back to the inn and possess her. Fuck her until she pleaded with him to stop, then pleaded with him not to.
He frowned, not liking this loss of control. He didn't hurt women, not even when they begged him for it. Not anymore.
Oh, I'll beg you for it, sugar. I promise.
Lara ripped her hand away and dug into her plate with sudden gusto.
Noah ignored the pounding of his heart and waited until Lara had relaxed. He finished his dinner, finally sated. In one way, at least. "That voice. I heard it before." He studied her worried reaction, sure now she'd heard the same. More of the past seeping into the present, no doubt. But how the hell had Lara heard that? "You a psychic?"
"A legitimate question. People out here see a lot of strange things."
"Arizona's like that, yeah. But I'm not psychic." She wouldn't look at him, but he could see the sense of unease she couldn't quite hide. "I just, maybe... There are rumors a few places in town are haunted. I chalked up the odd talk to ghosts."
"What kind of odd talk?"
"The--I don't know."
She raised her gaze to his and glared. "This whole discussion is ridiculous."
"Not to me. I need that painting. You look exactly like her." He pointed to the picture. "And we both just heard a voice no one else did. Explain all that if you can."
Lara withdrew a few bills from her jacket and tossed them on the table. "I need to get back to the inn. Enjoy the rest of your dinner."
"We're not done talking about this, Lara." He watched her, wanting to know what drove her, scared her, aroused her...
She scurried from the table. "I'm done talking. I have to get back. Frank's waiting." She darted out of the restaurant in a blur of motion.
Noah saw nothing of ghosts or the past as he watched her go. He had eyes only for Lara. A mystery within a mystery. And a puzzle he had every intention of solving. The sooner the better.