Wicked Games ONLY
$0.99

a McCade Brothers novella by USA Today bestselling author Samanthe Beck

When a battle of wills becomes a game of lust, one wrong move could be fatal.

Actress Stacy Roberts is ready to ride her rising star straight to Hollywood’s A-list. All she needs is the famous Hollywood Hedonism party (check), one very naughty angel costume (check), and a few drinks to get her sexy swagger back (check, check). Tonight, she is not aching for her hot, hard-bodied ex. Or worrying about the threatening letters signed by “Your Worst Nightmare.”

For Detective Ian Ford, “nightmare” doesn’t begin to cover it. Whatever demons prompted Stacy to cut and run have him tied up in knots. Worse, his ex is dressed to kill any man with a pulse, and Ian is seeing red. If Stacy wants trouble, she’ll find it. Only Ian’s going to make damned sure that the only trouble she gets is with him.

There are no rules. They either both win, or they both lose. But this time, there’s an extra player—one who’s determined to make sure this is the very last game Stacy plays…

Previously released as part of the Lovers Unmasked anthology. Now available individually!

 

Information:

Title: Wicked Games (a McCade Brothers novella)
Author: Samanthe Beck
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 134 pages
Release Date: March 2014
ISBN: 978-1-62266-542-6
Imprint: Brazen

 
 
Excerpt from
Wicked Games
by Samanthe Beck

Copyright © 2013 by Samanthe Beck. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
 

Chapter One

Stacy Roberts tucked a condom into the cleavage-boosting bustier she wore beneath her wispy, white angel costume, and eyed her reflection in her vanity mirror. Nice. The Lycra miracle pushed her breasts together and created the kind of view that guaranteed no man would have the first clue what color her eyes were tonight, and—bonus points—not a trace of the little foil square showed through. She considered adding a wingman to the other side when a voice interrupted her musings.

“‘I’m out of patience, Stacy,’” Kylie read. “‘Resign from Vegas Vixens and leave Hollywood, or you will be sorry. This is your last chance to exit gracefully. Do as you’re told, your show’s producers, sponsors, and fans will learn you’re nothing but a delinquent from Two Trout, Tennessee? A slutty ex-stripper who worked her way from pole dancing at Deuces to a starring role on America’s favorite guilty pleasure? It’s going to get ugly. Sincerely, Your Worst Nightmare.’ What the hell, Stace? Please tell me you’ve shown this to someone?”

Stacy winced inwardly and turned from the mirror. Her twin sister stood in the bedroom doorway wearing a low-cut, skintight red catsuit, lace-up red leather boots, and an anxious expression. She held a devil-horn headband in one hand and a nondescript piece of notebook paper in the other.

Angel or not, Stacy didn’t need divine omniscience to know how Kylie had found the latest letter from her Worst Nightmare. Her assistant, Mandy, must have left it on the desk in the guest room/office where Kylie had gotten dressed for tonight’s party. What Ky didn’t know, thank God, was that Stacy had received a dozen others along the same theme, though progressively more threatening. All were presumably from the same not-so-big fan who always signed off as “Your Worst Nightmare.”

“It’s nothing, Ky, just the price of starring in a hit TV show. Along with all the fan mail, I have to expect a few nasty-grams.” She turned back to the mirror and forced an unconcerned shrug—she was an actress, for Christ’s sake, and a decent one for a girl whose only prior Hollywood credits consisted of stripping at Deuces. An eyeliner sat on the vanity top. She grabbed it and leaned toward the mirror. Distract and divert. “The she-devil look totally works for you, by the way. Aren’t you glad you let me pick our costumes?” She drew a smoky line across her upper eyelid. “No way would Trevor be content to sit home tonight and skip Deuces’ Halloween Hedonism party if he could see you now.”

There. That ought to do the trick. The mere mention of hot, handsome, and adorably whipped Trevor McCade typically sent Kylie into an excited monologue about the latest development in Big-White-Weddingville. Too bad the mere mention of Trevor made her think of Ian—

Kylie ignored her diversion tactics. “This isn’t a nasty-gram.”

Stacy silently thanked her sister for unknowingly forcing her thoughts off the dead-end path of Trevor’s aggravatingly arrogant partner, and onto the comparatively safer path of her mail-stalker.

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t a love note. Are you going to wear your hair down?”

“It’s a threat.” Her twin frowned at the letter and came into the room.

Epic fail on switching topics, Stacy thought, and applied eyeliner to her lower lash line with an expert hand.

Kylie stopped beside Stacy’s chair and pinned troubled blue eyes on her sister. “Whoever this is, this so-called ‘Worst Nightmare,’ he’s collected information about you. He knows where you’re from. He knows you used to dance at Deuces, and he knows how to get a letter to you. He could be someone with access. He could be dangerous.”

Stacy focused on her reflection in the mirror and lined her other eye. “Lots of people know I used to work at Deuces, including the producers and my agent. That fascinating fact isn’t exactly classified information. And contrary to what this guy seems to think, breaking the news wouldn’t get me fired. My publicist already has a plan in place. On top of that, thousands of people know where I’m from and how to send me a letter. It’s right there on my website, and on the show’s fan site, for that matter.” No need to mention that the letters had come to her house, and not to her agent. That little detail would only worry her sister, and Kylie was a first-class worrier.

As the mature, responsible twin, Kylie tended to take everything a bit more seriously. As the wild, carefree twin, Stacy prided herself on never letting worry stand in the way of a good time. Unfortunately, she hadn’t felt particularly wild or carefree lately. More like tired, depressed, and—God, how pathetic was she?—lonely. That’s where working fifteen-hour days and ending a long-term relationship she never should have started in the first place landed a girl. She deliberately rolled her shoulders, easing the tension that wanted to settle at the base of her neck, and silently vowed to reconnect with the old Stacy tonight—the fun, unpredictable, live-for-the-moment Stacy.

“I’m worried.”

Shit. So much for my Academy Award. She mustered up her trademark don’t-eff-with-me smile. “No need. I know exactly how I want to handle this, and my publicist cleared the plan with my agent and the show’s producers. Several reporters will be in front of Deuces tonight. I’ll stop to chat with them on the way into the party, and mention how I got my start in Hollywood dancing at Deuces. Dropping the news myself will take the wind right out of this guy’s ratty little sails. Without the big threat to lord over me, he’ll crawl back into whatever sick, sad cave he crawled out of…”

She trailed off and straightened when she noticed Mandy hovering at the bedroom door. How long had she been there? Her quiet, unassuming assistant personified detail-oriented efficiency, but her dull brown hair, drab clothes, and aversion to makeup made her easy to overlook. Pretty enough, Stacy always found herself thinking, but in dire need of a makeover. One of these days… “Yes, Mandy?”

“I just wanted to let you know the limo is waiting out front.”

Her usual shy smile was missing tonight. Then again, it was Friday—and Halloween. Mandy might have some plans of her own she wanted to get to, but was too timid to speak up and say so. Stacy had no problem cutting her loose a little early.

“Thanks. If you’re done for the day, go ahead and get your Halloween started. Just do me a favor and let the driver know we’ll be down on your way out.”

“Okay, but first, I’ve got a few things that need your signature.” She held up a stack of paper.

Oh yeah, signatures. Her life was full of stuff to sign these days. Contracts, correspondence…paychecks. “Want to come in the limo with us? I’ll sign everything on the way to Deuces, and then the driver can drop you wherever you want to go afterward.”

Ah, there came the shy smile. And a blush. Mandy mumbled, “That’d be awesome. I’ll get my stuff and meet you down there.” She hurried away like Cinderella late to the ball.

“Oh, my! Did you get a load of those beet-red cheeks? Bet she’s got a hot date tonight.”

“Don’t try to change the subject.”

Stacy rolled her eyes. Kylie could be like a dog after a bone sometimes. “We’ve exhausted the subject. I told you, I’ve got this guy handled. After tonight, he’ll go away.”

“Or he’ll get really mad, and escalate from writing letters to…God only knows. You should show this to Ian first, and see how he thinks you should proceed.”

Her idiotic heart stalled at the mention of his name. She put the eyeliner down, picked up her powder brush, and started dusting her face with more energy and attention than the chore really required. “We broke up six weeks ago. Why would I speak to him about anything?”

Kylie just looked at her for a long minute, and Stacy fought the urge to fidget in her four-inch, crystal-studded Louboutins. Finally, Kylie tossed the letter onto the vanity and said softly, “How about, because he’s a trained detective, and he cares about you as much as I do?”

Frustration got the better of her. She balled up the stupid letter and threw it in the wastebasket under her vanity. “He’s a homicide detective, Ky, not a mail investigator. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not dead.” Yes, she sounded bitchy, but talking about the man she’d been trying unsuccessfully to banish from her brain for weeks didn’t put her in a warm, fuzzy mood. Then another thought struck and her mood sank to a subbasement of foul. She pointed at Kylie.

“And don’t you dare tell Trevor about the letter!” It didn’t take a genius to see where that particular game of telephone ended.

“Too late.” Her sister shrugged, not the least bit repentant. “I called him as soon as I saw it.”

“Fabulous. Now call him back and tell him to forget about the damn letter. I’ve got the situation handled. There’s no need for him to give it another thought.”

Her sister turned and strolled toward the door. “Tell him yourself. He’s meeting us at the party.”

Stacy grabbed her feather-covered white wings and followed hot on her heels. She cut Kylie off at the head of the stairs. “But he’s not bringing Ian, right?”

Kylie shrugged. “No clue. Trevor didn’t say. For all I know, Ian has plans tonight.”

Plans like a date? A vision of him smiling across a candlelit table at some faceless bimbo sent a nauseating blend of pain and jealously through her. Stop it. Shake that shit off, right now. You don’t know what he’s doing tonight, and you don’t care.

She followed Kylie downstairs and out the door, locking it behind her. What she did know for damn sure was that she didn’t want to see him. Perfect. Now she’d be all distracted until she knew whether he was at the party. She muttered “Thanks” to the driver holding the of the limo door open and ducked inside.

Mandy sat on one side, with her big canvas tote bag at her feet, diligently flagging signature lines. “These are almost ready to go.”

“Awesome,” Stacy replied, and scooted over to give Kylie room to get in. The driver managed to peel his eyes off Kylie’s spandex-covered backside long enough to nod and shut the door. Determined to change the subject, Stacy put her wings down on the seat beside her, leaned back, and smiled at her sister. “Did you see the way the driver looked at us? I think he actually drooled.”

“He drooled at you. He also totally checked out your butt when you got in the car.”

“You both look really pretty,” Mandy said.

“Thank you,” Kylie shot Mandy a smile and then returned her attention to Stacy. “Don’t bend over too far in that outfit, or you’re liable to moon the entire party.”

She grinned and smoothed a hand over her costume. The flimsy thing looked like a strong breeze would blow it right off. “Compared to some of the getups you’ll see tonight, I’m positively dowdy.”

“Oh, please. You’ve never been dowdy a day in your life. Not even when you were stuck in a big old plaster cast from toes to knee.”

Thinking back to that period, almost a year ago now, made her remember the first time she’d met Ian. He’d shown up at the dumpy apartment she’d shared with Kylie, and she’d experienced an immediate flare of attraction as she’d stared into the deepest, greenest, most deceptively easygoing eyes she’d seen in her life. She hadn’t made him as a cop until he’d flashed his badge and hustled her down to the police station to answer questions about two murdered Deuces clients. That he’d fooled her was odd because she’d had enough experience with Two Trout’s finest during her formative years she could usually spot a cop as easily as she could spot a Hollywood boob job. But despite her instincts, all she’d seen was thick, sun-streaked hair, a determined, slightly raspy jaw, and an array of lean, hard muscles that gave her an instant urge to climb him like a rock wall, regardless of her broken leg.

Answering their questions had taken forever and left her a sweaty, shaking mess, but miraculously, they’d believed her when she’d insisted she didn’t know anything about the murders. Ian had driven her home. Something about his self-assured smile and unshakable calm made her want to fuck with him…or just fuck him, but instead he’d done both to her. Before she’d known quite what hit her, she’d been flat on her back, with her broken leg draped over his shoulder, screaming like a porn star as he’d driven her right out of her freaking mind with nothing but his mouth.

She’d tried to even the score as soon as she could see straight again, but he’d brushed her off and told her “some other time.” Offended and, truth be told, a little humiliated at how completely she’d lost control of herself in his arms, she’d given him her best Queen B look, told him there would be no “other time,” and kicked him out. The cocky bastard had stood in her doorway, smiling his stone-sexy smile, and assured her with complete and utter confidence there would be plenty more times, starting as soon as she acknowledged they were going to share more than just body fluids. Then he’d walked out, without a backward glance.

Naturally, he’d been right. He’d infected her mind like a virus, until he was all she could think about. She’d lain in her bed night after night, all needy and aching, remembering the way he’d tongue-whipped her into a frenzy. How careful he’d been with her broken leg. How thrillingly rough and insatiable he’d been with the rest of her. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she’d broken her own ironclad rule and called him, and they’d dated for almost a year. The best year of your life, a small, unhappy voice at the back of her mind insisted.

“Thank God I’m out of it now,” she whispered, thinking Kylie would assume she meant the cast.

“You should call him,” her sister said, not fooled in the least. “You’re miserable—don’t deny it, I know you too well. He’s miserable too, in case you wondered. I know you got spooked when he asked you to move in, but there’s a lot of safe ground between living together and breaking up. I think you should talk, now that you’ve both had some time to calm down and consider things.”

Safe ground? What a joke. Because of her, and choices she’d made before she ever met Ian, there was no safe ground for them. So for once in her life she’d done the noble thing. The selfless thing. The most painful thing imaginable. She’d set him free before she ruined his life by dragging him and the family he loved through a humiliating public airing of her not-so-upstanding past. Miserable or not, he must have realized he’d dodged a bullet when she’d broken things off, because he’d done nothing to try to change her mind, and Ian could be relentless when he wanted something.

“I adore you, Ky. I really do, but you’ve developed one tiny, annoying habit since entering the disgustingly sweet state of bliss reserved for brides-to-be.”

Kylie poked her in the leg with the plastic pitchfork she carried. “You don’t say?”

“Ow.” She shoved the fork away. “I do. You’re happy, and, naturally, you want everyone around you to experience the same happiness. What you have to understand is that right now I’m not at a place in my life where a long-term commitment works for me. My career is finally taking off. I need to stay focused if I want to keep the momentum going. I can’t afford the distraction of a relationship.”

“That makes no sense. You two have been joined at the hip since you landed the series, and your career has never been more on-track. Why do you suddenly think the relationship presents some dangerous distraction?”

“Because…” Dang it, she’d thought the whole “can’t afford any distractions” excuse sounded mature and logical. She huffed out a breath and scrambled for a better explanation. Something besides, Because he deserves better than an ex-juvenile delinquent,and an ex-stripper with a bad reputation. Because even if he thinks he can handle the fallout when all my shit goes public, how will he feel when his mom can’t go to the market or church without people whispering about how her son’s involved with the crazy actress whose disreputable past has been splashed all over the tabloids?

Growing up as the bad seed of Two Trout, she knew what it felt like to be the object of whispers and malicious looks. Her takeaway from the whole god-awful place had been a tough skin and a general disregard for what other people thought of her, but she wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. She sure as hell wouldn’t wish to inflict that kind of treatment on people who had been nothing but nice to her.

“Because?” Kylie prompted, and jabbed Stacy again with the plastic pitchfork.

“Ouch. Cut that out or you’re not going to like where the fork goes next. Look, we’ve been over this, Ky. I don’t have time to invest in a relationship. I’m on the set, or doing publicity, or auditioning for movie roles for when the series goes on hiatus.”

“Ian understands the demands on your time. He’s got a pretty demanding job too, you know.”

“Exactly.” Stacy latched onto the argument like a lifeline. “We’d never see each other, and we’d grow apart. It’s doomed.”

Or…you’d move in together, like Ian suggested, and appreciate the little, everyday moments all the more because you don’t take them for granted. Why don’t you just admit you got cold feet?”

Yeah, that’s what everyone thought, including Ian. Or maybe he’d seen right through her act, but not called her on it because he realized she’d done him a favor. Life with her was no picnic. She’d managed to run her daddy off from in the womb, and most of the other people in her life, except Kylie, disengaged as soon as they got whatever they were after.

Ian wasn’t after anything except the right woman to spend his life with. Call her crazy, but she’d never seen the point of auditioning for a role she didn’t have a prayer of winning. She stared out the tinted window at the parade of lights, cars, and costumed revelers along West Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. “I did not get cold feet,” she said softly.

“You so did. A classic case. He asked you to move in with him and you bolted like a bunny rabbit. If I look up ‘cold feet’ in the dictionary, I don’t see your picture, because you’ve already run for the hills.”

Mandy snorted and tried to hide it by clearing her throat.

Stacy glared at her assistant. “Ha. Ha. Are those signature pages ready?”

“Here.”

She took the stack of flagged papers and the pen Mandy handed her. The weight of her sister’s hand on her knee drew her gaze away from the pile. Kylie stared at her with sympathetic eyes. “I’m not laughing. I just want you to be happy, and Ian made you happy. You two just”—she held her hands up and laced her fingers together—“you fit each other.” She dropped her hands to her lap. “Think about what I’ve said, okay?”

Stacy forced her lips into a noncommittal smile and got busy signing. She could think about her reasons for the breakup until she fried every last one of the hundred billion brain cells in her head, but nothing changed. Despite Kylie’s belief to the contrary, they actually didn’t fit. She’d spent almost a year ignoring the little warnings her mind had tried to send her heart. Hello, he’s a cop, and you’re an ex-stripper, not to mention your hometown’s poster child for authority issues. Anything wrong with this picture?

She signed the last flagged page with a flourish, put the pen on the stack, and handed everything back to Mandy.

“Did something else happen between you two?” Kylie asked. “Besides the whole moving in together discussion?”

Damn. God might as well have given them one mind to share, because Kylie read hers so easily. “No,” she said quickly, and flipped her hair behind her shoulder. “Not really.”

Hell yes, something had happened. One rare, wide-open Saturday after she’d surprised him in the shower with a deliciously dirty morning scrub-down, Ian had told her to “put on something pretty” and get ready for the best burgers and dogs she’d ever tasted. She’d thought he planned a drive to one of the casual little restaurants along the Pacific Coast Highway, but no…he’d driven them to a sweet, postcard-perfect Southern California neighborhood, parked in the driveway of a sweet, postcard-perfect house, and introduced her to his sweet, postcard-perfect parents, and a good portion of the neighbors who were gathered for a barbecue. She felt like a trespasser on the wrong set. Instead of Vegas Vixens, she’d stumbled into a modern-day Leave It to Beaver.

“Which is it, ‘No’ or ‘Not really’?”

“I missed my single, carefree days, okay? I liked being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.” She flipped her hair again and shrugged. “Call me selfish, but I’m not the kind of girl who likes to spend her Saturdays at a boring backyard barbecue just to please some man.”

“Me either,” piped Mandy. “Besides, a backyard barbecue is a cheap date. He should take you out to nice restaurants.”

Kylie shook her head and stared out the window. “I know it’s not about a backyard barbecue.”

It was, in a way. She’d had the time of her life, sitting between Ian’s father and another neighbor, listening to them reminisce about their boys’ obnoxious misadventures in suburbia. But somewhere around the time his mom had glanced across the table and smiled at them, Stacy had realized she belonged in this close-knit group of family and friends about as much as a hooker at High Mass. In their minds, “wild behavior” meant TP-ing old Mrs. Cranston’s Continental, or swiping a bottle of vodka from the liquor cabinet, drinking the whole thing, and puking in the next-door neighbor’s hot tub.

Kylie turned back to her, eyes serious, lips unsmiling. “Ian loves you. Yes, relationships require compromise, but—”

“Compromise isn’t my strong suit, Ky. You know that.”

She needed to end this conversation, immediately, because she couldn’t use the words “Ian” and “love” in a sentence without bursting into tears. She’d never been able to, which was one of the reasons she’d never told him how she felt.

“You’re running scared from the love of your life, and you’re going to regret it.”

Doubtful. She prided herself on being a no-regrets kind of girl. But that afternoon at Ian’s parents’ house, she’d suddenly realized some of her choices had the power to affect other people in ways she hadn’t anticipated—and that they hadn’t signed up for. Would Ian find it hard to face his family and friends when it came out that his girlfriend had her own signature pole-dance move? Maybe, whispered a tiny, insidious voice at the back of her mind, which is why he asked you to move in with him instead of marrying him. He wanted an escape hatch, because he still had doubts. Well, she’d sprung the latch on his escape hatch, and damn him, he’d sprinted through without a single look back.

“Ian Ford is not the love of my life”—God, she hoped that was true—“and I sure as hell wasn’t his. From what I can tell, he’s over me. He broke the bounce-back record. And you know what?” She flipped her hair out of her face. “I’m over him, too.” A part of her still couldn’t believe he hadn’t called, texted, shown up drunk on her doorstep…nothing.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say.” Kylie poked her again with the pitchfork, then jerked the damn thing out of reach when she grabbed for it. “Be glad I don’t smack you over the head. The only reason I haven’t is because I know every word you’ve uttered since we got in the car has been a big, fat lie.”

“Says Kylie, the amazing human lie detector?”

“You keep flipping your hair. I don’t know if you think the move distracts people from the bull coming out of your mouth, or what, but you’ve done it since you were a kid. Mom and I always joked that we knew you were lying when your hair started flying.”

The comment coaxed another snort from Mandy. This one Stacy ignored.

“You’re nuts, just like Mom. I can’t believe I never realized this before.” She crossed her arms over her chest and sank back into her seat, not really caring if she looked like the pouty little brat she’d once been. She preferred pouting to picking through the dangerously sharp remains of her shattered heart.

Tonight she fully intended to party like a rock star, dance her ass off, and get Detective Ian-freaking-Ford out of her head.

 

 

Chapter Two

Ian closed his eyes and let the hot spray of the shower rain down on the top of his head. Maybe it would pound some resolve into him, because he was uncomfortably close to chucking his “wait Stacy out” plan, tracking her down, screwing her brains out, and, somewhere in the process, telling her he refused to allow her emotional baggage to sink their relationship. Unfortunately, if he did that, he might as well hand his balls over in a pretty pink gift bag.

Irritated to find his thoughts traversing this same well-worn trail for the billionth time since their breakup, he grabbed a bottle of liquid soap from the recessed tile shower shelf and squirted some into his hand. The smell of Stacy’s fancy soap filled the small space. Nice going, stud. Wrong bottle. The scent provoked memories, just to mess with his head. One fine Saturday morning she’d stood right there in his shower and washed him from head to toe, with some un-fucking-forgettable detours in between, because when it came to their bodies, Stacy was game for anything.

She’d always been more comfortable with the physical part of their relationship. The boundaries she’d enforced applied almost exclusively to their emotions, which she liked to pretend didn’t exist. Pretended to the extent he’d always had to say the words for her. They’d gotten into a game where, each night before they drifted off to sleep, he’d say, “I love you.” She’d snuggle against him, maybe fiddle with the silver chain of the St. Michael pendant his grandfather had given him when he’d graduated from the police academy, or, if she was feeling especially feisty, cup his balls. But she’d remained exasperatingly silent. After a beat or two, he’d pitch his voice up a couple octaves and say, “I love you too, Ian, more than anything.” She’d always laugh and kiss him, but dammit, she’d never say the words.

Raw, sincere emotions frightened her, and, when scared, Stacy fell back on detachment as her preferred defense mechanism. He’d figured that out early on—pretty much from the first moment he’d seen her, framed by the door of the run-down Hollywood apartment she’d shared with Kylie, wearing a plaster cast on her leg, a criminally short robe that barely covered her obscenely gorgeous body, and a smile that extended him all kinds of invitations. One look and he’d been hooked.

Her “dare me” grin had disappeared as soon as he’d shown his badge and requested that she join her twin down at the station to answer some questions about why Kylie had been posing as Stacy and obstructing their investigation into a couple of murders at Deuces. She’d made the trip in cool, unflinching silence, but he’d sensed the fear beneath her ice-queen facade. Still, he’d had to admire her control. She’d held herself together through grueling hours of questioning designed to make hardened criminals cry for their mommas. Stacy had never so much as sniffled.

No surprise, considering she’d spent years polishing her crack-resistant protective shell. She’d needed one to endure a crappy childhood in a small town where everyone liked to think the worst of her and most of the men under eighty wanted to sleep with her. His beautiful, tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside survivor had concluded that if she never invested her heart in anything or anybody, then nothing and nobody could hurt or disappoint her.

He rinsed her soap off his hands, picked up the right bottle, and worked his soap to lather. While he scrubbed his chest, he relived that lazy Saturday morning not so long ago, when she’d sneaked into his shower, pressed her soft, wet breasts against his back, and ordered him to “spread ’em.” Only a miracle explained how he’d managed not to slip and knock himself unconscious in his rush to comply. She’d proceeded to run her hands all over him, under the pretense of patting him down. When he’d helpfully pointed out he had nowhere to conceal a weapon, given his state of bare-assed nakedness, she’d begged to differ. She’d bent his upper body to the wall and proved him wrong. The move had surprised a groan out of him, and, for a moment, he honestly hadn’t been sure whether he’d wanted her to stop or do it harder, but soon enough, he’d found himself incredibly appreciative of her out-and-out dedication to the job. His lonely, despondent dick perked up at the memory.

Stand down, Officer. If he gave in now and went crawling back to her without the promises and commitments he’d asked for, he’d never have her on the terms he needed. And if he accepted less, he’d lose all self-respect. He knew himself, and her, too well. Allowing Stacy to define their relationship meant she’d sell them both short.

Not physically, of course. He washed his stomach and ignored the semi, jutting out like a fifth limb, casting a clear vote for the crawling-back option. He couldn’t blame his lower half for hoping. Stacy gave 100 percent in bed and took the same from him, but contrary to the current evidence, he couldn’t be content with 2:00 a.m. get-your-ass-over-here-and-fuck-me-’til-my-eyes-cross calls, and pretending their feelings for each other only went skin deep.

He loved her, and what’s more, he knew she loved him—even if she didn’t want to. Even if she wasn’t ready to admit her feelings. It didn’t take a degree in psychology to understand that’s why she’d pulled away when he’d asked her to move in with him. But he had the degree and wasn’t afraid to use it. Basic human psychology dictated he stand firm. He reached around and soaped his lats, where the phantom weight of her breasts still rested. Stay strong. Don’t reward behavior you don’t want to reinforce.

Easier said than done. Basic human psychology didn’t greet him in a see-through nightie at the end of a long day, or send him a text that read, “Got your request for a twelve-minute blow job,” when he sent it a dozen roses out of the blue. Basic human psychology didn’t snuggle up close in the blurry light of dawn and trace his features with a whisper-soft touch when it thought he was asleep.

He missed her, dammit. Her smart-ass comments, her smell, her touch, her taste…everything. Surrendering, he reached down and took his now-throbbing cock in a soapy grip. He closed his eyes and remembered how she’d tortured him that Saturday morning…one busy hand working him from behind with a thoroughness that had him choking back a prayer, the other moving up and down his shaft in slow, measured strokes. He’d alternated between threats and curses while he’d watched the head of his dick appear and retreat from the snug, soap-lubed tunnel of her fist. Eventually she’d quickened the pace and reduced him to begging, which he’d done willingly, hell, enthusiastically, until his voice had gone hoarse, his muscles rigid, and he’d come with the debilitating force of a fire hose at full blast. If she hadn’t been there to brace him he would have collapsed and drowned in his own shower.

This time he slapped a hand against the wall in front of him for balance and uttered a long, ragged stream of curses as weeks of pent-up frustration poured out of him in a long, slightly agonizing rush.

Somehow, over the pounding blood in his ears, he heard his phone ring. Fucking perfect. Couldn’t a guy get ten lousy minutes of peace to jack off in the shower? He would have let the call go to voice mail but he knew by the ringtone it was Trevor. They were off the clock, but they had a couple investigations going and sometimes leads came in without regard for their work schedule. He flipped the water off, wrapped a towel around his waist, and stalked into his bedroom for his phone.

“This better be important.”

“Happy Halloween to you too, asshole.”

“I’m standing here in a friggin’ towel, dripping water all over my hardwood floors. ’Scuse me for skipping the ‘Hi, how are yous.’”

“That’s a visual I didn’t need.”

Ian took a deep breath and struggled for the calm he usually exuded with no effort at all. “I didn’t need a phone call in the middle of my shower, so we’re even.” He tossed the towel onto his dresser, balanced the phone between his ear and shoulder, and pulled on a pair of black jeans. “What’s going on?”

“I’m on my way to pick you up. Be there in, like, two minutes. Put on a costume.”

He figured Trevor was calling about a case, but the last part piqued his interest. “To the best of my recollection, we don’t have a date to go trick-or-treating.”

“Kylie called. Stacy got a threatening letter from some anonymous wacko who had a lot of personal information about her. Told her to quit the series and leave the business altogether or she’d be sorry.”

Anyone in the public eye occasionally drew unwanted attention. Most of the time the loser in question got his jollies writing a few letters and that was that, but nonetheless Ian battled a compulsion to track the freak down and pound him into the pavement. “Who’d they report this to? Who’s working it?”

“No one. That’s why I’m calling. You know as well as I do the first person Stacy would share something like this with…uh…now…would be Kylie. But apparently Stacy never showed her the letter. Kylie happened across it tonight at while they were getting ready for the party at Deuces.”

Yeah, Ian thought, reading the “now” comment easily enough. Now that she’s dumped you. “Hold on.” He put the phone on the dresser and pulled a long-sleeved black T-shirt over his head. “We should talk to her right away. Get the letter…and any others she’s received. She’s got personal security for the party tonight, right?”

“Nope.”

“Fuck. That’s a huge mistake.”

“I agree. I’ve called Vern and gotten us on the guest list, but he warned me the costume policy is strictly enforced at the door, guest list or no, so unless you want to show our badges and make a scene—”

“No, I want to blend in. I’ve got a costume.” He dug into his ski bag at the bottom of his closet and pulled out a black knit ski mask. The bedside clock caught his eye as he left the bedroom. “Jesus, you drive like my grandma,” he complained as he strode down the hall. “Where the hell are you?” He swung his front door open.

Trevor stood there holding his phone to his ear, wearing a dark suit and tie, same as he wore on any workday, and a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses Ian had thankfully never seen before.

“I’m at your front door.”

Ian disconnected and stuffed his phone in the back pocket of his jeans. “That’s not a costume.”

His partner pocketed his phone and stepped inside. “This is the most successful costume of all time.”

“Seriously, man, what the fuck are you supposed to be?”

“I’m Clark Kent. I went classic and heroic.”

“You went lazy and uncreative. You’re a step down from ghost.” He dropped down on the living room sofa and shoved his feet into black boots.

“What the fuck are you supposed to be?”

Ian stood, rolled his ski mask down over his face and arranged the bottom until it covered the crew neck of his long-sleeved black T-shirt. “Cat burglar.”

“Strange and creepy.”

He shoved the ski mask up and smirked. “Mysterious and dangerous.”

“Whatever. We’re not here to win an award for best costume”

“Which is good, because you don’t stand a chance,” Ian shot back and walked down the hall.

“I’m here to help you protect your imprudent girlfriend from some crazy stalker.”

He punched in the combination to the small steel gun safe at the bottom of the hall closet and muttered, “She’s not my girlfriend.”

“That’s on you to solve. I can’t mastermind everything.”

“Oh, I am solving it, don’t you worry.”

“Really? Because it looks more to me like you’re sitting on your ass, moping around, and tearing my head off for breathing.”

“I’m employing psychology.” He ground his back teeth together and chose the small, efficient Smith & Wesson M&P. “A little tactic called ‘waiting her out.’”

“Ah. Impressive. At this rate you ought to have her right where you want her in”—Trevor made a show of glancing at his watch—“never.”

Ian closed the safe and somehow managed to stop himself from banging his forehead against the doorframe. “The ‘waiting her out’ part of the plan weakened her resolve and gave her a chance to realize how much she misses me. Now she’s ready for phase two.”

“Phase two?”

He didn’t miss the doubt in his partner’s voice. He took his ankle holster from on top of the safe and stalked back to the sofa. “Where I tell her I’ve had enough of her ‘I’m not a relationship kind of girl’ bullshit. I know she’s in love with me, I’m in love with her, and here’s how things are going to be. End of story.”

“Yeah, good luck with that.”

“Keep your luck, hater. This is going to work.” He wrapped the holster around his ankle and closed the Velcro strap. “I have the upper hand.”

“You and your upper hand are in for some more lonely nights. Why don’t you try apologizing?”

“Apologize! Are you fucking kidding me? What did I do wrong?”

“I don’t know. Obviously, you don’t know, and you know what? You may never know, even after she explains it to you five hundred times. That, my friend, is part of the beautiful, complex mystery known as woman. But I am trained to examine the evidence in front of me and draw logical conclusions. Let’s look at the evidence, shall we? You guys dated almost a year, you asked her to move in, and she dumped you like a stale keg. Logical conclusion? You did something wrong.”

“That’s not a logical conclusion. It’s a superficial, idiotic interpretation of some circumstantial facts.”

“Maybe.” Trevor shrugged and stared out the window. “But the woman I love wears my ring and, when she leaves the party tonight, she’ll be on my arm, so which one of us is the bigger idiot?”

Point taken, though he’d tear out his tongue before saying so. He tilted his head left, then right, to work the kinks out of his neck. “Can we put aside my personal life for a minute and concentrate on the reason we’re going to this party in the first place?”

“Fine by me. How do you want to play things?”

He wanted to stride in, toss Stacy over his shoulder, and walk out…and not put her down until she told him she loved him and begged him to take her back. Then they’d turn the damn letter over to a forensic team, pick her brain for a list of suspects, and talk her into adding personal security to her entourage until the threat was resolved. But Stacy would dig in her heels and refuse to cooperate if he tried the shoulder-toss tactic.

“You go in and find Kylie. Stick to her, because she and Stacy look so much alike, if some sicko has his sights set on Stacy, there’s a chance he’ll mistake Kylie for her, which puts them both in danger. I’ll find Stacy, stay close to her, and ensure nobody tries anything. At the first opportunity, I’ll try to wrangle her outside so we can move to a more secure location and question her about the letter.”

“Okay. I’ve got your six. How do you plan to get her to leave with you?”

“I have no clue, but I’m figuring the ski mask might come in handy.”

“You don’t think she’ll recognize you, just from…I don’t know…pheromones or what have you?”

“Under flashing lights, in the middle of a jam-packed costume party?” Ian shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“If you get her out of Deuces under false pretenses, she’s going to be pissed.”

“Better pissed at me than staving off the advances of some delusional lunatic.” He inspected the pistol and loaded a magazine. “Besides, she’s already broken up with me. What else can she do?”

“Okay. Agreed. And if she’s with a…ah…new friend?”

“She’s not looking for a new friend, because she’s still in love with me.” He forced some confidence into his voice, but in truth, his vision went red around the edges and his pulse spiked at the idea of Stacy in the arms of some other guy. Technically, she was a free agent. She could hook up tonight, tomorrow night—any night she chose.

“Maybe she loves you, but after a month of your famous ‘wait her out’ treatment, she’s probably given up on the notion of receiving the heartfelt apology you owe her.”

“I told you before. I do not owe her an apology—”

Trevor simply kept talking. “She’s probably decided you’re a lost cause, hence…new friend.”

Ian leaned down and holstered the Smith & Wesson in his ankle holster. “She can un-fucking-friend him.”