Authors: Tiffany Snow
“Stop the car,” she interrupted.
“I said stop the car! Stop the car! Stop the car!”
Her frantic demand had Erik swerving to the side of the gravel road. He hadn’t even come to a full stop before O’Connell was out of the car and running.
Throwing the SUV into park, Erik jumped out and tore after her.
It was pitch-dark, and the ground was uneven beneath his feet. He stumbled but caught himself. Muttering a few choice words, he resumed his pursuit.
“O’Connell!” he yelled. “Come back!” What the hell was she doing?
Erik’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and meager light cast by the moon. He stopped, searching and listening. How had she disappeared so fast? He was abruptly reminded of that first night with her and how quickly she’d disappeared into the snowy trees. Even hurt, she’d moved like a wraith in the night.
Up ahead, he thought he caught a glimpse of a shadow. O’Connell. Erik ran toward her as she disappeared over a hill.
When he reached the same spot, he looked down and saw the unmistakable inky black of the Mississippi River about eighty yards away. O’Connell stood at its shore.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked when he reached her.
“Go away, Langston,” she said, her voice flat. Her arms were crossed over her abdomen as though she were holding herself together.
“Not going to happen,” he replied. “So you might as well tell me. What prompted this unexpected field trip?”
She rounded on him. “Did you hear what he said? Were you listening?”
“Of course I—”
“I stole a hundred million dollars, Langston.
A hundred million.
From someone who’s not just going to look the other way. And not only that, but I hacked into…that thing he said…to do it.” Her gaze met his and the hopelessness in her eyes was like a physical pain to Erik. “I’m not going to make it out of this alive,” she said quietly. “You and I both know that.”
Everything inside Erik rebelled, even though he’d thought the same thing. “That’s bullshit,” he spat. “You did this for a reason and it wasn’t to sign your own death warrant. We just need more information.”
don’t need anything,” O’Connell snapped. “You’re out of this, Langston. Starting now.” She turned away.
Erik grabbed her arm, yanking her back to him. “You think I’m just going to let you walk away? We’re in this together. I promised you I’d help you and that’s what I’m going to do. No one is going to kill you, not if I can help it.”
O’Connell smiled a sad little smile. “You’re a good man, Langston,” she said. “Much too good for someone like me. And much too good to die for me.”
Erik opened his mouth to argue, but then she was kissing him, her body pressed against his, her arms looped around his neck. The warm heat of her mouth was an intoxicant.
O’Connell kissed him with a desperation Erik matched, desire for her igniting inside him like a match to tinder. He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her as close as he could, cursing the clothes that prevented the warm touch of skin against skin. He lost track of time and place, his every sense overwhelmed by her.
Suddenly, she stepped back, out of his arms. Her eyes shone wetly in the moonlight.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
O’Connell thrust her hand out and Erik barely had time to register that she was holding something before pain knifed through him and his knees buckled. He hit the ground, then knew nothing at all.
larissa tried not to think about how she’d left Langston lying in a heap on the banks of the river, his body motionless after the electric charge from the “broken” stun gun she’d swiped from Andy. At the most, he would have been out twenty minutes or so. He’d be fine.
It had only taken her three attempts to find a car that had keys in it once she’d backtracked to the trailer park. She’d driven during the night, pulling off occasionally on a side road to sleep for a half hour or so when she’d gotten too tired. Now she was pulling into New Orleans just as the morning rush hour was hitting.
Guilt ate at her, but she ignored it. She’d done the right thing. Langston was the kind of man who would have stuck by her, defended her, protected her, no matter what. But that path would undoubtedly get him killed.
No need for him to share her fate.
Clarissa had no idea why she’d taken that money or what she’d planned to do with it, but she wasn’t stupid. Solomon would never stop hunting her. And once he found her and realized she couldn’t give the money back…well, Clarissa just hope he'd kill her quickly, though she had her doubts.
Langston had done enough for her. It had been time to cut him loose.
Clarissa pulled up to a coffee shop. It was busy with several people going in and coming out.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered, getting out of the car. She needed money, and there were few options for obtaining it. She’d refused to take any off Langston. That somehow seemed more wrong than stealing from a complete stranger.
Though she’d kept his jacket. She hadn’t been able to make herself leave it behind.
The shop smelled of roasted coffee beans and pastry, making Clarissa’s stomach growl. She pretended to check out some merchandise on the shelves while observing the queue of people waiting to be served.
One man caught her attention. A businessman, judging by his suit and tie, he was wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and was busy texting on his phone. When the barista asked what he wanted, he didn’t even look up as he barked his order at her.
Clarissa looked him up and down, judging his height and where he most likely kept his wallet. When he grabbed his coffee, she made her move, stepping into his path as he headed for the door. They collided, coffee splashing from the little hole in the lid of his cup.
“Dammit!” the man exploded.
“Oh crap!” Clarissa said, feigning surprise as she stumbled back, one hand disappearing under Langston’s jacket. “I’m so sorry!”
The man’s hands were full with his phone and coffee as he glared at her. “Just watch what the hell you’re doing, will you?” With that, he pushed by her and went out the door.
Clarissa waited a moment, then followed, glad to see he’d gone the opposite direction from where she’d parked. A few minutes later, she was several blocks away, examining the expensive brand-name wallet.
She was in luck. The wallet held four hundred dollar bills and some twenties along with several credit cards. First order of business: food.
The Café du Monde was hopping with tourists, though the traditional revelry area of Bourbon Street was quiet this morning. Clarissa ordered and ate the sugary pastry as she walked a few blocks. A second-hand vintage clothing store was her next stop. A couple of questions to the woman working there as she was checking out and she knew where Queens of the Night, the name Andy had scrawled on the piece of paper, was located.
Stowing her purchases in the backseat of the car, she drove by the club. Situated right on the corner of St. Louis, it had a pink facade with the club’s name in shining gold letters.
Clarissa cruised the streets until she found a beat-up motel that looked like she wouldn’t have to show ID to get a room. Sure enough, a hundred dollars got her a key and no questions.
After showering, she lay on the bed, the rough fabric of the cheap linens abrasive against her skin. As tired as she was, she couldn’t fall immediately to sleep. She stared at the ceiling, thinking of Langston.
Was he angry with her?
Well, that was an easy question. Clarissa was sure he was furious. She hoped he would see that she’d had no choice, and that she’d left to protect him. She hoped he’d understand.
Had he gone back to Washington? Gone back to clear his name? The stun gun would have left marks. That would prove she’d overpowered him and escaped, that he hadn’t let her go. They’d believe him.
There was an empty ache in the pit of her stomach when she thought of Langston.
God, she missed him. Missed his calm strength and absolute conviction that he was doing what was right, even with the danger they’d faced. She missed making him laugh in spite of himself, missed teasing him until his ears turned red. Missed watching him get dressed, the hard planes of his chest rippling as he moved. And the way he’d kissed her, as though she alone could give him what he needed, wanted.
A shiver ran through her, and Clarissa pushed thoughts of Langston from her mind. The truth was she was on her own and on the run — with no memory. It terrified her.
As did the thought of exactly how long it would take until Solomon caught up to her. The clock was ticking and she knew her time was running out.
Erik’s headache was matched only by his anger, which poorly concealed his frantic worry.
She was gone. O’Connell had nailed him with the stun gun he hadn’t even seen her take from Andy, and taken off, leaving him on the cold ground by the river. She’d even distracted him first with the oldest trick in the book.
On some level that wasn’t either angry or worried, he had to admire her resourcefulness and courage. Somehow she’d gotten far enough away that he hadn’t been able to find her when he’d regained consciousness.
Erik had stumbled his way back to the SUV, fully expecting to find it gone. Hope had flared briefly that she’d changed her mind, that she’d be inside, but it had been quickly dashed. He’d gone back to Andy’s, thinking maybe she’d gone there, but no luck.
But he knew her destination.
Andy had told him the name of the club, and now Erik stood outside it, the glowing letters of the sign like a beacon in the night. The music was loud with a thumping bass he could feel. Crowds filled the street, laughing and talking as they flowed around him, drinks in their hands.
O’Connell would come here tonight. And he’d be waiting.
The bouncer let him pass without a word, and Erik stepped into the darkened club.
Strands of multicolored lights were hung on the walls and draped from the ceiling. The club was filled with people, though Erik noticed he was certainly in the minority. Women were the primary clientele, for obvious reasons. The getups some of them wore had Erik’s eyebrows climbing. His jeans, black button-down shirt, and sport coat seemed decidedly out of place.
Making his way to the bar, he ordered a beer from the bartender, who seemed to be a man in drag. Maybe. Erik wasn’t sure and didn’t think it would be in his best interest to ask.
Taking a swig of the beer, Erik scanned the room. O’Connell shouldn’t be too difficult to spot, not with her red hair. From where he was, he could see most of the bar. No one with red hair stood out.
As Erik waited, he thought about what O’Connell had said before she’d kissed and subsequently stunned him.
You’re a good man. Much too good to die for me.
Had she thought she was protecting him? That running away from him would make him just give up? Let them find her? Kill her?
The thought just served to piss Erik off. Did she not believe him when he said he’d protect her? Or did she just not trust him to keep her safe?
An hour and two beers later, Erik saw her. His breath left his lungs in a rush.
She’d just walked in. Tousled waves of red hair brushed her shoulders, and her eyes were smoky with shadow, mysterious and alluring. But the hair and makeup weren’t what held Erik’s attention. It was the dress.
Skintight, the dress she wore was long sleeved and came up to demurely circle O’Connell’s neck. But the modest lines were pointless since it was made entirely of black lace.
The hemline stopped at the tops of her legs, giving a tantalizing view of inner thigh as she walked. Strategically placed lace was the only thing that seemed to preserve her modesty. Black stilettos held on her feet with a thick leather strap around each slim ankle made her legs look like she’d walked right out of one of Erik’s fantasies. Not that he had fantasies about her.
O’Connell didn’t see him as she went by, and Erik slid off his stool, his eyes never leaving her as he followed. Her hips swayed as she walked, the lace whispering across her skin. Erik struggled to keep his eyes above her waist, but the battle was futile. She wore a flesh-toned g-string under the dress, and Erik wanted to groan at the leap his imagination was already making.
Seeing she was safe brought his anger to the surface again. He’d been worried sick, terrified he’d find her already dead in New Orleans. And instead here she was, looking for Raven in a dress he’d get on his knees and beg to be allowed to peel off her.
She paused uncertainly about halfway into the bar, near a small alcove. Erik saw his opportunity and moved in behind her.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” he said directly by her ear. The music was loud, but by the stiffening of her body, he could tell she’d heard him.
Clarissa spun around, a scathing put-down on her lips, and froze in shock.
Her heart leaped to see him, and tears sprang to her eyes. He’d followed her. She knew she should be upset that he had, but she couldn’t lie to herself. But she had to lie to him, so she schooled her features into a mask, blinked back the tears, and hoped he hadn’t been able to tell how relieved she was to see him.
Clearing her throat, she said, “That’s the best line you’ve got? No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Well, I briefly considered asking where you’re hiding your stun gun in that dress.”
Clarissa’s eyes narrowed. “What are you doing here, Langston?” she asked. “Didn’t you get the message? I don’t want you here.” She made to push past him.
Langston snagged her around the waist, yanking her back and into the empty alcove. He leaned in close, imprisoning her with his body.
“I don’t recall asking your permission,” he hissed in her ear.
Clarissa’s pulse raced. He was so close she could feel the heat of him through the nearly nonexistent material of her dress. She struggled to keep her wits about her.
“Did you think you could pull your disappearing act and I’d just meekly give up and go home?” he said. “You were very…very…wrong.”
Langston’s breath was warm in her ear, a phantom caress. His hands lay possessively on her hips, his grip not tight enough to hurt, but enough to let her know she wasn’t going anywhere. Despite her wearing the shoes that were killing her feet, he still loomed over her.
Clarissa couldn’t think straight. The music was pounding in her head like the blood did in her veins. The flashing disco light over the dance floor in the corner briefly illuminated Langston before throwing him back into shadows. His wide shoulders blocked her view of anything but him.
The touch of his tongue to the skin just under her ear made her gasp. He sucked lightly, sending a bolt of heat through Clarissa. Her nails dug into his shoulders. When had she moved to grip his shoulders?
Then rational thought was lost again when his hands moved from her hips to the hem of her dress and under, cupping her rear and pulling her even closer. Clarissa could feel his arousal against her abdomen.
A part of her was stunned at Langston’s audacity. Clarissa never would have taken him for the making out in public type, yet here he was, leaving a hickey on her neck while his hand determinedly traced the elastic line of the tiny scrap of lingerie she wore. The fact that they were surrounded by people in a public place and she was hidden only by Langston sent a thrill of excitement through her. Maybe she was an exhibitionist?
Or maybe it was because it was Langston.
Clarissa briefly thought she should push him away, put a stop to this, but she couldn’t. Willpower must not be one of her virtues, not that she probably had that many to start with.
The corner of the alcove pressed against her back as she clung to Langston. His denim-clad knee urged her thighs apart as the fragile fabric of her dress bunched around her waist. She struggled to remain standing, the persistent movement of his fingers making her knees nearly buckle.
“Kiss me.” His rough command had barely reached her ears before his lips were on hers, his tongue sliding into the warm cavern of her mouth.
Clarissa’s legs weren’t really holding her up now, just the wall against her back and Langston’s arm around her. She heard nothing, felt nothing but him kissing her and his intoxicating touch between her legs. Her breath came in pants as he kissed her jaw, her neck, her shoulder.
“Erik,” she moaned. “Oh God…please don’t stop…” She really would kill him this time if he stopped now.
Her words must have encouraged him. He groaned, his fingers moving more purposefully now.
Clarissa’s body was like liquid fire, her hand tangled in Langston’s hair, holding him close as he licked and sucked the tender skin under her jaw. Just before she fell apart, he kissed her again, smothering her cries as she splintered into a thousand pieces.
She clung to him, struggling to catch her breath, when she felt his breath again by her ear.
“You’re beautiful, Clarissa.”
His words were reverent, and the way he said her name made an ache bloom inside Clarissa’s chest. Langston’s hands were gentle as he rearranged her clothes so she was once again presentable.
Their gazes caught and held. Words she shouldn’t say lingered on the tip of Clarissa’s tongue, so she grabbed a fistful of Langston’s shirt and pulled him in for a kiss. She tried to put a lot into that kiss, including a promise she didn’t know if she’d be able to keep.
Erik’s head swam, nearly giddy with the knowledge of how much she’d let him in. Not to mention what she’d just allowed him to do to her. He felt like a stranger had inhabited his skin, a stranger with no willpower or self-control when it came to O’Connell. He couldn’t have stopped himself from touching her if the club had caught on fire. Speaking of which…