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Damned, Sexy, and Hunted

Damned, Sexy, and Hunted

Romance

Linda J. Parisi

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Andrew Jackson “Jack” Kent’s on the hunt for white collar criminals, and as a private investigator he always gets his man. Except in this case…it’s a woman. The brilliant cellular kineticist Dr. Morgan Mackenzie’s next thrilling discovery is—him. On the run from her employers with the formula for a priceless but deadly diet drug, Morgan agrees to a night of pleasure with the outrageously sexy stranger. But when she leaves the next morning, Jack won’t let her get far. And that’s when the truth comes to light. Her cowboy on a white horse isn’t a hero after all. He’s part of the posse. Yet when Jack goes to turn Morgan in, he learns who the real criminals are, and suddenly, it’s a race against time to find the murderer before they become the next victims. To succeed Jack needs to convince Morgan he’s on her side. Even though she doesn’t trust him, Jack is a drug she can’t resist, leading her to discover that sometimes…you're damned if you don’t.

Romantic Suspense

CHAPTER 1

The delicate notes of the piano in the bar clashed with the hustle and bustle of the hotel lobby. Crystal chandeliers and gilt crown moldings quarreled with the picture windows filled with sun, sand, and the ocean not more than a hundred yards away. The building was just as much juxtaposition as she, for if there was ever a place Dr. Morgan Mackenzie didn’t want to be, this was it, right down to her last dime and her final hope.

“Friend of the Bride or friend of the Groom?”

Morgan froze. She turned her head ever so slowly and inhaled an intriguing men’s cologne. She released that breath, hearing nothing now but the roar of her heart inside her chest. “I beg your pardon?”

He leaned towards her as if this were an everyday occurrence, so tall she had to tilt her head to look up at him. Midnight black hair gleamed in the artificial light as killer blue eyes raked her from head to toe. “No need to beg. I’m all yours for the asking,” he answered, a slow smile growing on his face.

Her gaze swept over him, then the receptionist asked her, “Excuse me. Will you be using a credit card today?”

Morgan pulled out three one hundred dollar bills trying not to wince. He stayed her hand and pushed past her. “Put the lady’s room on my card.” He pulled out a very black piece of plastic.

“Wait a minute, umm, excuse me, but that’s quite all right. Very kind of you, but not necessary. I mean, I don’t want to… oh hell, I don’t even know you.”

“Ahhh,” he smiled, handing over the card, which the receptionist was only too eager to take. “But I know you.”

Morgan’s knees liquefied. Her stomach sank. She gripped the edge of the counter to keep from falling, but had just enough sense of self-preservation to paste a smile on her face. “Look, I’m not quite sure what kind of game this is, or what kind of bet, but you need to stop right now.” She turned to the receptionist. “I can’t allow him to do this. You need to give him his credit card back, please.”

The receptionist smiled, and Morgan found no hint of remorse. “Sorry, I already put the charge through.” She lifted her gaze to his and added, “And your room, sir?”

With the aplomb of centuries of male ego, he said, “Don’t have one.” Then he stared directly into Morgan’s eyes. “Do I need one?”

She opened her mouth. She shut her mouth. Her fingers trembled. She couldn’t get a wisp of air past the lock inside her throat. “Guess I do,” he grinned. “Any openings?”

“Just the Hamilton Suite, sir.”

“Sounds fine.”

“The suite comes with a complimentary bottle of champagne. Shall I have it sent up?”

He arched his brow and she fell right into the heat in his gaze. If only dreams really did come true. She shook her head and he turned to the receptionist, his shoulders lifting and falling. “Guess not.” For whatever reason, the receptionist handed him both keys. Because he paid for both of them? Morgan would never know. “Maybe later.”

The roar of her heart could’ve drowned out the ocean at that moment, so much so that she missed his question. “Sorry?”

“Guess I’ll have to repeat myself. Are you a friend of the bride or a friend of the groom?”

“Neither. I’m not here for the wedding.”

He pulled his thick dark brows together as he frowned. “You’re not?” His gaze scorched her from head to toe. She shivered and wondered. Had the new Morgan made that much of an impression? Gone was the tight chignon. Her newly colored, newly styled hair now brushed the tops of her shoulders. Say Sayonara to the khakis, the sweaters, the comfortable Dexters. Instead she wore shiny new Ferragamos, a tailored pantsuit, and a turtleneck to hide a throat already full of rope burns.

“Listen,” she replied, feeling the noose tighten once again. “You’ve been very kind and I’m flattered as hell, but I really need to go. I’m already late.”

He wrapped his fingers around her arm lightly and all of a sudden, they were walking out of the lobby. “For what?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” she snapped, trying to shrug out of his grasp. “I don’t know you. I didn’t ask you to pay for my room. And I’m under no obligation to stay with you.”

“I know. But I promise, if you do, you won’t be sorry.”

What? He reached around and looped his arm through hers, not letting her pull away. He guided her down a hallway towards a raucous ballroom, but she hesitated before they drew near. She had no business being anywhere near this wedding—or this man. Yet she didn’t stop him as he turned and led her through a set of doors and out onto a balcony.

Cool ocean air rippled her skin. He noticed and drew her into his arms. “I’ll warm you up.”

Confidence or arrogance? After a moment, she stopped trying to decide. They began to dance and Morgan stiffened, lying to herself that he’d caught her by surprise. The sad fact was she couldn’t afford the luxury of dancing in a man’s arms. Not when she was on the run. She looked up to see him smiling down at her.

Ah, hell. Dimples. For a moment, they almost made her forget who she was.

As Unforgettable floated through the air, she realized she was doing the same. Against her will, against all sane thought, Morgan relaxed into him and the space between them vanished. His heat enveloped her, as did his arms, one hand cupping hers tightly to his chest. Rough calluses on his hands spoke of hard physical labor, not surprising considering the rock-hard muscles beneath her fingertips, fingertips that longed to explore. Morgan admonished them to behave.

His other arm curled around her waist, pulling her closer. Caught, she wanted nothing more than to give in. Hell, she was this close. Then the picture of a computer screen filled her mind.

The moment died a slow, relentless death. And if she didn’t get her act together, she would too.

Morgan tried to bolt and he tightened his arm around her waist. “Easy, kitten. There’s no need to run.”

There’s every need. “Look, I know you were simply being kind. Or maybe you thought…”

He looked down, his brows nearly touching. “Thought what?”

“That I was an easy mark for your bed.” There. She said it and now it couldn’t be taken back.

His face fell. “You’re not married, are you?”

“Why in the ever-loving hell does my marital status matter? I am not going to sleep with you. Do you understand?” She blew out a frustrated breath. “End of discussion,”

He laughed. “Fine by me. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood for talking anyway.” He cocked his head. “And?” he asked, completely ignoring her statement.

“You’re incorrigible. No, I’m not married,” she cried, wanting to gnash her teeth together. God, he was impervious and brazen, completely pig-headed and freaking egotistical. Yet, as his hips continued to mesh with hers, her core opened and a flood of desire filled her belly. Sweet, sweet temptation in spite of the price. And if her life was the only one involved, Morgan would never have hesitated. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Jack.”

“Mr. Jack? Jack in the beanstalk? Jack-in-the-box? What?”

He leaned back and smiled. What could be more deadly than that smile? “No. Just Jack.”

“Oh, okay. I get it. Jack as in Ripper.”

His nose scrunched up as he winced, yet laughter rumbled through his chest. “As in Jackson. Jackson Kent. Thanking my lucky stars my mother drew the line there and didn’t name me Clark.”

Morgan couldn’t help herself. Her lips twitched.

Jack bent down to bring his eyes level with hers. “Come on. I saw that. Go ahead. You won’t die. Smile.”

Yes she would, especially if she didn’t get her head screwed back on. The people coming after her would be professionals. They wouldn’t be inclined to hear her side of the story. Still, she had to try to extricate herself. “Look, I need to leave now.”

“So you keep saying.” He drew in a deep breath and let the air out in a whoosh. “I’ll let you in on a little secret.” She didn’t ask. She didn’t dare. “I’m not here for the wedding either.”

Said with the most innocent of faces. And the dimples no less. He had to be kidding. “Seriously?”

“Scout’s honor.” He even let go of one hand and held it up, curling his thumb over his bent pinkie to leave his middle fingers pointing at the sky with not an ounce of remorse in his expression. “Wedding crasher?”

“Nah. You wouldn’t believe the real reason.”

“Try me.”

He stilled. His grin faded. His gaze turned serious the way gazes do when they are ready to impart earth shattering news. “I fell in love with you the moment you turned the corner.”

Morgan laughed, unable to hold back the heat filling her cheeks. But inside her stomach was doing an act for Cirque de Soleil. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t very nice of me. But surely you don’t expect me to believe you, do you?”

“Told myself you wouldn’t. But how can you fault a man for trying?” he asked, barely above a whisper.

“I can’t.”

His head tilted toward the buffet that lined the hallway down from the patio. “Sorry enough to let me buy you dinner?”

This time she laughed and didn’t feel guilty. He was simply too outrageous. “Buy?”

He shrugged. “A matter of semantics.”

Spoken with a grin that could melt a woman’s bones. She started to decline when her stomach growled loud enough for both of them to hear.

“Sounds like you’ve had your mind made up for you.”

Morgan could feel herself blushing. She could also feel the sharpened steel of an axe coming down on her head. “Guess so.”

“Hey, don’t look so upset,” he said, his face as innocent as it was beautiful. “You’ll kill my ego.”

“I highly doubt that’s possible,” she retorted with a roll of her eyes.

He arched a single brow. “You’d be surprised.”

The song, long over with, stuck in her mind as he let go. He trailed his hand possessively down her back, and for a moment, she wondered what it would be like to have a man who actually cared.

“Glass of wine?” He quirked his mouth. “Or would you prefer something harder?”

“Don’t you ever give up?”

He shook his head, his gaze promising things Morgan knew she had no right acknowledging, let alone dreaming about.

Not trusting herself to answer, Morgan let him lead her to the bar, knowing she shouldn’t indulge. “A glass of white. Pino,” she said.

“Red for me. Cabernet?” he asked the bartender.

They touched glasses once they were poured. His gaze filled with devilish delight. “What should we toast to? A chance meeting? An enchanted evening?”

Either would have made her day, even her week, a couple of weeks ago. Now they felt like sheer impossibilities. “How about… to life.”

He tilted his head in question. “No,” he said in a warm tone, “to love.”

Damn. He really needed to stop making her insides flip. “Do you tell that to every woman the first time you meet her?”

“No.”

She watched his lips curve over the edge of the wine glass wondering how they would feel on her skin. “Oh come now. You tried to buy ‘us’ a room It’s a great line you know. Must get you laid quite a bit.”

At first, just his hand stopped, right before he was about to take another sip. Then his gaze shuttered. But not before she saw the hurt. Genuine hurt. Still, his tone enveloped her as he answered, “Just women in pinstriped pants suits wearing outrageous high-heeled shoes and carrying handbags with a very expensive name written on them.”

Wow. He pursed his lips and drew his brows together. She watched his fingers tighten around his wineglass. She’d angered him. “I wasn’t playing with you. I swear.”

Impossible. No one but a really good actor could have said so much with such a straight face. “Look, I don’t know what your game is or why you decided to try to pick me up, or what I’m even doing here. Most men wouldn’t have the smarts or the gall.”

His gaze traveled her length yet again. She shivered not quite sure if her reaction was from excitement or fear. “I’m not most men,” he said, his voice wrapping her in silk even as he stepped back away from her.

That was for sure.

“But don’t expect me to believe out-and-out bullshit, all right? It’s demeaning to both of us.” Morgan felt like one of those cartoon characters with the angel and the devil sitting on her shoulders. One part of her desperately wanted to stay and the other part of her wanted to run and keep on running.

She should never have threatened BioClin.

“I apologize. I see now how my desperation must look,” he paused, shaking his head as if to clear it. “I know you think I picked you up to get you into bed. But all I wanted was to meet you. And so you know, I’m going to have the devil of a time trying to explain to my boss how that room charge got on my expense account.”

But she had threatened BioClin and now she had to pay the price. Problem was, the price was growing exponentially. Would it ever stop?

“A black expense account?”

He lifted his forehead and then rolled his shoulders. “I travel all the time.”

Her stomach growled again, and he grinned. “Sounds like someone is hungry. At least, well, have a bite with me. Please.”

She let him lead her back inside. They trolled the hors d’oeurves, piling two plates high with everything from crab puffs and scallops wrapped in bacon, to thin slices of rare fillet.

“I know it’s a bit chilly, but would you like to eat outside?” he asked.

“Less chance of getting caught?” she asked with a wink.

“Wouldn’t want to end up in jail over a crab puff,” he replied, popping one into his mouth.

Morgan couldn’t help but laugh. “Caviar, at the very least.” She inclined her head, allowing him to escort her back outside. “I’d prefer the noise reduction,” she answered. In truth, she wanted to be alone with him, even though she didn’t deserve the gift he presented. What she’d done was wrong. What she was doing now, well… that was worse.

Several tables and chairs were empty, probably because of the temperature. She shivered and as soon as she put her plate and glass down, he whipped off his jacket and covered her shoulders. Then he pulled out her chair as she sat.

“Anyone ever tell you how gallant you are?” Morgan asked, wondering how chivalry remained alive in today’s techno-solitary world.

He palmed his chest. “Me?”

She nodded, savoring a bite of tomato and mozzarella. So much better than the fast food she’d been surviving on. “This is heavenly. You really need to try some of this.”

She held out a forkful, but he shook his head. “I’m a meat and potatoes man. This is all a façade,” he replied, sipping his wine. “Trust me.”

She couldn’t, and that was a shame. She would have liked to. “What façade?”

“I’m all about beer and football.” He waggled the wineglass at her. “Not my norm.”

He was lying. He was obviously used to better. Both the wine and the company. He’d swirled his glass and sniffed before wrinkling his nose at the taste of his first sip. Funny part was though, he seemed sincere. She wrenched her gaze away from him and looked around. In spite of the din of the wedding, she could hear waves crashing against the shore. The day, so warm from the sun, now cooled with the ocean breeze. She looked up to see a seagull fly overhead through the pink swirls lingering in the sky. She wished she could be as free.

He sat back, his sapphire gaze swirling with banked desire. “Come upstairs with me.”