Joe Huroq tossed his duffel bag onto the bed, scrubbed the week's worth of stubble on his chin, and blew out a long sigh. It had been a hellish three months, and he'd seen the worst of the emerging Eastern European countries, but the mission had been successful.
Yeah. Right. The team had rescued the kidnapped daughter of an oil executive from the scumbags holding her for ransom. But he'd taken one look at the broken shell of what once must have been a normal thirteen-year-old, and known she'd never be whole again. She might have been better off dead.
He knew not to go there.
The plaintive notes of "Stairway to Heaven" wafted to his ears. Joe grinned.
His back-fence neighbor, Terri, was in one of her moods. He'd learned to gauge Terri's state of mind by the music she blared while suntanning nude in her backyard. That particular rift meant she'd had a down and dirty fight with her girlfriend, had a twelve-pack of Heines on ice, and was halfway to being pissed.
Joe's grin went ape-shit wide. Exactly what he needed.
Shoot the breeze with Terri, get a nice buzz on, jump in the pool, and forget the bleakness in the teenager's eyes. He shucked his button-down shirt, tossed his boots, socks, shed his worn and grimy jeans, shoved off his briefs, grabbed a towel, and padded to the back door.
Spring in Hallie was his favorite time of year. A light breeze lifted the noonday heat, and the fresh aroma of just-mowed grass perfumed the air. A seven-foot wooden fence bordered his and Terri's backyards. She upped the volume when Joe slipped the deadbolt on the gate between the two properties.
Must've been a doozy of a fight.
Terri and her significant other, Petra, had a tempestuous, passionate relationship. He'd come to believe Terri secretly loved makeup sex and deliberately picked fights with Pet.
He spied Terri on the opposite side of the pool. She lay nude on a lawn chair, her face covered by a wide-brimmed straw hat. Joe raised his face to the sun and rolled his shoulders. No place in the world like the good old US of A, and nothing washed away the sins of the universe better than an afternoon of dissing the latest political gaffes and arguing about sports teams while drinking beer and scarfing down pizza. He studied the wispy white clouds dotting the powder-blue sky as he made his way over to Terri.
A four-seater patio table with an open blue-and green-striped umbrella stood adjacent to the twin lawn chairs. He glanced at Terri and frowned.
Those boobs. Perfect. Rounded.
At least a C-cup, with milk-chocolate areolae, and fat, pink-tipped nipples.
His cock stirred, and he stumbled. What the fuck?
He'd never felt the slightest attraction to Terri. He dropped his gaze lower and salivated. Inky, tight curls framed a heart-shaped mound of pubic hair from which peeked the prettiest pink pussy lips he'd ever seen, bar none. His jaw sagged, and his cock vaulted to commander-in-chief attention.
Holy Batman and Robin. He had died and gone to vagina heaven.
The song ended. His knees buckled. Joe grabbed a chair to try to steady himself. The metal feet squeaked on the pavers.
Terri jackknifed to a sitting position.
Not Terri. Not Terri at all. Whoa!
The female scrambled to her feet, grabbed the towel from the chair, and clamped the terry fabric over those perfect breasts. "Help! Help!"
She spun around and sprinted to the small deck connected to the back of the house.
A fine ass.
High, muscled, and sweetly curved.
He licked his lips and focused on her sleek thighs and the hint of pubic hair that did a stripper's grind-and-tease peep show with each long stride.
And all the while she shrieked like a fire engine on full alert.
The high-pitched screams made him wince, but he couldn't take his eyes off her backside, and he couldn't have moved an iota even if someone had put a GLOCK to his head.
She threw open the back door, raced inside, and slammed it shut.
Joe shook his head, hoping the blood pooled in his groin would somehow speed back to fuel his lust-dazed brain.
The crack of a window being opened penetrated his sex stupor.
"I called 911, you pervert. Get out of my backyard!"
That's all he needed. He snatched his towel, hightailed it out of Terri's yard, and locked the gate between the two properties. The local police station was less than five blocks away, and the notoriously underutilized force jumped at the chance to ticket a jaywalker, so Joe knew they'd nail the naked-guy-invades-neighbor's-pool call in a heartbeat. He barely had time to gather his far-flung clothes and shrug on his pants before the distinctive whirring and staccato rapid-fire sequence of police sirens fissured the quiet of the cul-de-sac. Inserting first one arm, then the other into his shirtsleeves, Joe sprinted to the living room and flung open the door just as two cops, weapons drawn, pounded up the five stairs to the front porch. Hands in the air, he froze. "I can explain."
The good officers didn't buy his version of events.
"Exactly what offense are you accusing me of?" Joe asked after his fifth reiteration of what had happened.
The policemen exchanged glances. "Trespassing."
A finable offense. "You can't take me in on that. And there is the fact that a stranger's in my neighbor's house. What if she's a squatter?"
One of the cops snorted. "A squatter who calls 911? Nice try."
"I've owned this house for five years. Terri's been my neighbor for three of those five years. Why is this stranger in her house? Maybe what you should be concentrating on is the fact that Terri's missing." Joe's temper surged. Damn it. He was tired, hungry, and pissed. Not even the memory of those perfect breasts alleviated his anger.
The two men conferred quietly with each other.
"What's the verdict?"
"We're running a check on the property next door."
Three hours later, Joe headed to the shower.
He stood under the streaming hot water for much longer than he should've, and still the tension in his bunched shoulders wouldn't abate. No matter how hard he tried, the vision of those perfect breasts kept popping into his head, and his blasted cock kept rising in hopeful anticipation.
So Terri was in Ireland on an archaeological dig.
Joe vaguely remembered Terri mentioning she'd applied to be a member of the team assigned to a recently discovered Celtic burial mound. And this Susan White had rented the house for the period Terri would be away. Joe shampooed, lathered, and rinsed. He toweled off and fingered his jaw.
He mulled the situation over while shaving.
Once he'd come into his wolf, there'd always been a string of available women. He both relished and hated one-night stands and had fallen into the habit of sticking to one woman at a time. He picked females who knew the score and wanted regular, safe sex with no emotional complications. His frequent stints overseas resulted in stop-and-go fucking. A three- or four-month absence proved the old adage about the heart growing fonder an out-and-out lie.
He wanted Susan White.
And he was going to have her.
Joe dressed, spent thirty minutes on the Internet investigating his new neighbor, and then went out the front door. Whistling, hands in pockets, he ambled down the sidewalk. His street, Elm Close, backed the one Terri lived on, Birch Crescent. Both cul-de-sacs were mirror images of each other and ended in the traffic circles that fronted his and Terri's houses.
He rounded the corner to Mission Street, strolled past Treehouse Park, and turned onto Bonaventure Boulevard. Glancing at the park as he traversed the five-minute walk on Champion Avenue, he noticed two junior soccer teams kicking a ball around.
Birch Crescent was one of those Hallie streets that exuded old-world charm. He fixed his attention on Terri's country-style bungalow at the end and dead center of the road.
More a cottage than a house, the dwelling oozed quaint southern country. A wide front porch held the requisite two-seater wicker swing chair, and three antique milk cans painted a soft ivory dribbled a variety of trailing ivies, daisies, and pink petunias.
Side-by-side beds of cabbage-patch flowers, lavender, and catnip led to the steps and the front door. Joe hesitated for a second before thumbing the doorbell.
Positioning himself so she wouldn't be able to see his face from the windows, Joe listened to the sing-song ringing and sniffed. The aroma wafting from inside was pungent with the perfume of garlic, onions, and basil. His mouth watered. Italian sauce. Marinara maybe. His stomach complained its emptiness.
The door swung open.
Joe's dick went loco.
Long hair, straight as a pin, glossy and blue-black, framed an angular face and caressed toned, tanned arms. She wore painted-on jeans, a skimpy tank that molded those perfect breasts with tongue-licking caresses, bare feet, and she appeared about to plow him.
He was so done for.
Her eyes widened, and her nostrils quivered. "You!"
Joe'd been a Boy Scout. Always prepared. He stuck a booted foot against the doorjamb.
She tried to slam the door shut. He countered by exerting pressure on the wooden panel.
"I'm here to apologize."
Her fierce scowl and narrowed eyes, spitting fire, damnation, and intent to maim, didn't faze him one bit.
"We got off to a bad start. Your landlord, Terri, and I are good friends and neighbors. I'm Joe Huroq."
Big, black eyes widened. She planted fisted hands on curvy hips and gave him the once-over, pausing with a lip-curling sneer at his obvious arousal, which thickened in optimistic expectation.
She tipped her head and pursed a mouth too red and full to be anything but sinful. "So Terri mentioned. She did, however, fail to inform me that the two of you, good buddies, tanned in your birthday suits regularly."
She crossed her arms and pointedly cast her gaze to his groin.
"Hey, I'm only human. My dick's reacting the way it's supposed to."
"Well, tell it to take a hike and wait for Terri's return. I am not her fill-in."
"Terri's a lesbian."
He suppressed a smile when her brows arched and she blinked and then gave a little head shake.
In her twenties, Terri'd been a centerfold of the year, and she hadn't let her figure slide after turning thirty. Petite and curvy, femininity personified, she was the opposite of the female lesbian stereotype.
"Yeah. Go figure." He dragged a hand through his hair. "Can we start over? I'd prefer not to have to guard my back for the next year. That's the length of your lease, right?"
A scowl pinched her onyx brows into a V, and she widened her stance, pelvis thrust forward. "And how in heck do you know that?"
Jesus. The memory of her pink, unshaved pussy had his mouth watering. He tried to erase all sorts of images from his cock-controlled head. "This is how it is. Terri and I get along. We're friends. I've just returned to the US from Europe and haven't had time to check e-mail. I thought you were her. You're obviously not. Can't we forget about what happened earlier and go forward from here?"
Her nostrils flared. "Why didn't the cops arrest you?"
Now that comment made him want to connect his hand with her ass. "Say again?"
"Okay. Okay. I may have overreacted." She shoved the door back and forth. "Terri did say you were one of the few decent guys still left on the planet. And that you could be counted on in an emergency."
"Yeah. Well, that I am and you can." Joe couldn't stop picturing her fat, pink nipples. "So, want to start over?"
"I guess." She toed a circle, and man, did she have adorable toes, especially the big one. Cute and plump and sloped to the left. Joe could think of a lot of uses for that toe.
"Is that a yes?"
He rolled his eyes. "Can you be more specific? I'd prefer not to have the cops chasing me every time I speak to you."
"They should've arrested you." She twisted her lips. "Still, I guess it's a case of mistaken identity."
A big sigh.
Eyes to the ceiling.
She met his gaze. "Okay, I'm Susie White. Terri did say that you were a perfect gentleman."
"Now I wouldn't go that far." He scraped both hands through his hair. "Pleasure to meet you, Susie White. Are we on the same page now? I'm not a sex fiend. And we're going to play nice as neighbors?"
"Maybe to the first one. And yes to the second."
She did that woman thing of tossing her hair and arching her neck, and his cock reacted with a vigor Joe didn't remember existing since his twenties. Fuck. He sniffed, and her musk went straight to his head. He couldn't wait to bury his nose in her pussy, and he rarely did the down under.
"Terri told me you have a key to this house." Her mouth flattened, and she stuck her hand out. "I want it."
Her lips were rose colored, and when she spoke, her mouth did this little dance with her teeth, kind of like a stripper's bump and grind. Could she take him? Suck him down to the base? Holy crapola, he was falling fast and hard.
What the heck was she talking about? Keys. Oh yeah. He'd anticipated that move.
"Figured you might. Can't say as I blame you. Here." He pulled the key he'd stashed earlier from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. "If you're up to it, I thought we could walk to Mama Maria's and grab a bite. Eat with the early birds."
She stared at him for a few seconds and then stepped back. Eyed him from boots to tousled hair. "Damned if I do and damned if I don't. Okay. Let's do this. Kill two birds with one stone. The gas ran out for the stove, and I can't figure out how to switch the thingy. Terri said you always changed tanks for her."
"What?" He'd been too busy planning the path from dinner to hot and heavy fucking and missed every other word.
Tanks? As in battle?
"The kitchen stove. Gas tank. Needs to be changed." She threw him a superior sneer and raised one brow. "You fix it and we'll do dinner."
"Not sure I like how this is going down." Joe resisted the temptation to tuck her hair behind her ears, check out her lobes. He had a thing for succulent lobes. "Sounds like you're only agreeing to dinner with me if I fix the stove."
"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock. So...what's the verdict?"
"For the record, I would've changed the gas tank without the blackmail. And you're appearing a lot less gracious with that last remark." Joe stifled a grin when she colored from tempting cleavage to forehead. "I could've sworn I changed the gas tank for Terri before this last trip. Want me to do it now?"
"Damn it. Don't you try to guilt me out. I'm not the one who waltzed into my backyard wearing not a stitch of clothing and a ginormous penis. And now you want us to cozy up and have dinner? Forgive me for jumping to the wrong conclusions."
He held his hands up. "Whoa. How did we get from changing the gas tank to my ginormous--thanks for the compliment, by the way--cock?"
Twin slashes of red stamped her cheeks, and she squeezed her eyes shut. "I can't believe I actually said that."
"How's about we really start over? Wipe the slate clean." He extended a hand. "Hi. My name's Joe Huroq, and I'm your next-door neighbor."
For a long moment she stared at his fingers. Then she grasped his hand. "Susie White. Nice to meet you."
A firm grip, a quick shake, and then she dusted off his hold.
"Dinner at Mama Maria's? Or should I switch out the gas first?"
"It can wait till we get back. Hang on while I get my purse and find my shoes." She whirled around, stomped her way to a small table beneath which lay a pair of flip-flops and shuffled into them. She stretched an arm to the coatrack and grabbed a denim saddlebag from a hook, adjusted the purse's strap, snatched keys from a china saucer, and announced, "'Kay, cowboy. Let's rustle."
"Huh?" He knew what she was about, but playing possum would get them halfway to where he wanted. "Care to explain?"
"Let's have dinner and establish a truce. But it'll have to be quick. I have to study for a test tomorrow."
"No problem." He folded his arms and leaned on the door frame. "You might want to grab a jacket. When the sun sets--"
"For cripes sake. I'm an adult, not a child. And you sound exactly like my brother." She twisted back and snatched a denim jacket from a chair. "Terri said I was not to bug you about your occupation, but that I'd get a kick out of it. So what is it exactly that you do for a living?"
Fuck, she deserved to be spanked. Hard. He imagined those high ass cheeks pinkened and hand-imprinted, and salivated. "I'm a mercenary."