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Authors: Cindy Dees

High-Stakes Playboy

BOOK: High-Stakes Playboy
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Red-hot attraction is dangerous in this new Prescott Bachelors romance by
New York Times
bestselling author Cindy Dees!

To help his brothers, marine pilot Archer Prescott goes undercover to find out who’s sabotaging their movie set. But the die-hard bachelor isn’t ready for what he finds in the High Sierras: his doe-eyed, girl-next-door camerawoman is the prime suspect.

Marley Stringer isn’t as innocent as she seems. As Marley turns irresistible and the aerial “accidents” turn deadly, Archer begins to wonder who’s more dangerous—the perfect woman who threatens his heart…or the desperate killer who threatens his life.

“Have you had many men in your life?”

Marley snorted with laughter.

He pushed up on one elbow to stare down at her. “You're an attractive woman. Has something bad happened to put you off men?”

“No, I've just always been that girl next door who fades into the woodwork.”

He laid a hand on her cheek, preventing her from looking away. “Stop putting yourself down.”

“But—”

His mouth closed over hers and she gasped, surprised. He took advantage of it to taste her more deeply, and a strange sound she identified as a moan escaped her throat.

“Relax, Marley,” he murmured. His hand roamed from the back of her knee up her thigh, and darned if her legs didn't obey him and fall apart. His hand slid up by inches...

“What are you doing?”

“I'm establishing that all the guys who failed to ask you out in the past are complete idiots. Are you okay with that?”

Okay? No, she wasn't okay with this. She wanted more…

***

Be sure to check out the rest of
The Prescott Bachelors miniseries!

***

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Dear Reader,

I’m asked often why I don’t write more books about pilots, given that I was a military pilot for years. The truth is, I didn’t perceive it as a glamorous or particularly interesting job to non-pilots. But thanks to many of you wonderful readers pestering me endlessly, I finally realized that maybe other people might enjoy glimpsing the world of a pilot from an insider’s point of view.

And then, when a sexy helicopter pilot like Archer exploded into my imagination, I was finally convinced to take a stab at writing another book about a hot stick jockey. I suspect my heroine, Marley Stringer, is
thrilled
that I decided to bring both her and Archer to life.

And where better to tell their story than on the exciting and tension-filled set of an action movie in production? Take it from a lifelong aviator: stunt pilots are among the most skilled and craziest risk-takers in the entire aviation industry.

So pop yourself a bucket of popcorn, pour yourself your favorite cold beverage, open one of those movie-sized boxes of yummy candy, and prepare to take a wild ride with a high-stakes playboy and the spunky woman who can tame him at last…

Happy reading!

Cindy Dees

HIGH-STAKES
PLAYBOY

Cindy Dees

Cindy Dees
started flying airplanes while sitting in her dad’s lap at the age of three and got a pilot’s license before she got a driver’s license. At age fifteen, she dropped out of high school and left the horse farm in Michigan, where she grew up, to attend the University of Michigan. After earning a degree in Russian and East European studies, she joined the US Air Force and became the youngest female pilot in its history. She flew supersonic jets, VIP airlift and the C-5 Galaxy, the world’s largest airplane. During her military career, she traveled to forty countries on five continents, was detained by the KGB and East German secret police, got shot at, flew in the first Gulf War and amassed a lifetime’s worth of war stories.

Her hobbies include medieval reenacting, professional Middle Eastern dancing and Japanese gardening.

This RITA® Award–winning author’s first book was published in 2002 and since then she has published more than twenty-five bestselling and award-winning novels. She loves to hear from readers and can be contacted at
cindydees.com
.

Books by Cindy Dees

Harlequin Romantic Suspense

Soldier’s Last Stand
The Spy’s Secret Family
Captain’s Call of Duty
Soldier’s Rescue Mission
Her Hero After Dark
Breathless Encounter
Flash of Death
Deadly Sight
A Billionaire’s Redemption
High-Stakes Bachelor

Harlequin HQN

Close Pursuit
Hot Intent

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles

Chapter 1

M
arley Stringer crouched in front of the movie camera, checking it one last time, even though she’d already checked it twice. Everything was ready to go. But that didn’t keep her stomach from doing nervous flip-flops. This was her first big break in movie cinematography and nothing could go wrong.

Not to mention she didn’t like flying. She’d arrived at the airport this morning to find that her camera had been taken off the usual helicopter she flew in and mounted on this tiny, two-seat bubble-cockpit-thingie she’d never flown in before. Why the last-minute change to this mosquito of an aircraft, she had no idea. But she had a bad feeling about it. What if the camera mount came loose? Or the helicopter crashed and killed her? Or...

“Ever fly in one of these puppies?” a husky male voice asked from directly overhead.

She lurched, startled, and promptly banged her head into the belly of the helicopter.
“Oww!”

Big, tanned hands reached past the spots dancing in her eyes and lifted her to her feet. “You okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” she snapped, embarrassed. “The damned helicopter whacked me on the head.”

A chest came into view, clad in black leather. An aviator’s jacket. “Bad, bad helicopter,” the laughing voice chided the offending aircraft.

Scowling, she looked up at the face to go with the jacket...and stared.
Whoa.
Rugged jaw, complete with sexy, dark, whisker stubble. Generous mouth and a dazzling smile. Lean, male-model’s cheeks. Dark, slashing brows. And then her gaze met his.
Hoo, baby.
His eyes were as black as midnight and so hot she was fairly sure she felt her extremities threatening to catch on fire.

“Are you one of the actors in the movie?” she asked breathlessly. Lord. Where did all the oxygen in Northern California go all of a sudden?

He tapped the name patch over his right breast. “Wings. Pilot. It’s my bird that attacked you.”

She looked back and forth between him and the olive-green helicopter. “You need to take that thing to obedience school before it really hurts somebody.”

His mouth curved up in a sinfully hot smile. “Once I’ve got my hands on her, she’s the soul of cooperation. She does whatever I want, whenever I want it.”

Her gaze riveted on his mouth as he formed the words. She’d bet all the girls did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it once he had his hands on them. She finally managed to tear her gaze away from his
GQ
face, and it slid downward past the broad-shouldered leather jacket to the black jeans cupping his family jewels...
Please, God, let there be truth in advertising behind that bulging zipper.

Her face did catch on fire then. She tore her gaze away from his fascinating anatomy, but not before she glimpsed long, powerful thighs and black leather cowboy boots.

She stammered, “Where’s Gordon Trapowski? I’m supposed to fly with him today. You’re not him.”

“Gee. Thanks for noticing,” the god replied, as unlike burly, rough Trapowski as a man could get.

“I checked around the hangar,” she elaborated breathlessly, “but he’s not anywhere to be found. Do you know where I might find him?”

“No idea where he’s got off to. He’s going to be flying the combat-drop bird that’s being filmed today, I think.”

Oh.
Alarm filled her gut. As much as she disliked flying, she’d come to trust Gordon’s piloting skills over the past few flights with him. He was crude, a chauvinist and an all-around ass, but he was a competent, if jerky, pilot. Apparently, she would be filming him today instead of riding with him. Who was this guy, then?

“Any idea where I can find the cameraman who belongs to this camera?” the new guy in question asked, his voice rich with amusement.

“I’m him. I mean, I’m her. I’m your cameraman. Woman. Camerawoman.”
Dammit.
Did she have to stutter like a thirteen-year-old talking to her first boy?

“Ready to take a wild ride with me?” he murmured low, his voice charged.

Trepidation rattled through her. She sincerely hoped not. Wild was not high on her list of favorite flavors. That was, not until she’d turned twenty-five and realized abruptly that she was becoming a boring cat lady about to live the same tired routine for the next fifty years.

Hence the shift from early-morning local TV news crew to action-movie camera operator—a choice she was
deeply
reconsidering right about now. This pilot and all his raw sex appeal were scaring her to death.

That and his vicious attack helicopter.

On a movie set, she supposed she had to expect to be around sexy studs. She just hadn’t expected one of them to actually notice her. Good news was the stick jockey would lose interest in her soon enough. She would hide behind her camera until he hooked up with one of the hot, young starlets roaming around the set and forgot about her.

If her sister, Mina, were here, she would be all over this guy. But then, Archer would be all over Mina, too. He would never have given mousy little her the time of day. Which would have been a relief. Although for once, she wasn’t so sure she wanted this magnificent male specimen to look right past her.

Part of her—the part that didn’t want to end up alone, eccentric and smelling funny—wondered what it would be like to have his hands on her, and do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it.

If only she wasn’t completely jinxed when it came to men. If this poor guy actually took a second look at her, no telling what horrible fate would befall him. Her last almost-boyfriend had nearly died of food poisoning on their first real date. And then there was the guy who found out on a picnic with her that he was deathly allergic to bee stings...

“You didn’t answer my question. Ever been in one of these puppies?”

Startled back to the present, she risked a peek up at the sexy pilot. “I’ve been up with Gordon in a big helicopter with two engines.” Two nice, safe engines. If they lost one, they still had a second one to land with, everybody in one nice piece.

“But you’ve never been up in a fast maneuverable bird like this one?”

“No. Never.”

“Ah. A virgin. Excellent.”

Her jaw dropped.
How did he know...
Oh. A
fast
helicopter
virgin.

His eyes widened for a shocked instant and then narrowed speculatively.
Damn, damn, damn.
Please let that be him planning how to scare her in his helicopter. Please let that not be him picking up on what she’d almost given away.

“In you go,” he instructed. He was holding the passenger door for her, and damned if he still didn’t have that thoughtful look on his face. Swearing silently, she climbed awkwardly into the seat. A dizzying array of dials and knobs covered the dashboard in front of her. But then she spied the viewfinder for her camera. Familiar turf. Mounted on a swivel, she pulled the wide metal tube in front of her face and rested her forehead on the rubber face-piece. She felt a little faint.

“Slow down, darlin’. Gotta buckle you in first.”

She jerked her face away from the view box as hands touched both of her shoulders and knuckles skimmed down over her breasts. She lurched in shock at the intimate contact.
What the...

Oh.
He was feeding the shoulder harnesses down her body. Through her thin T-shirt and thinner bra, her nipples leaped to attention. Of course, his gaze went straight to them and heated up a few hundred degrees more. Did he
have
to look like a volcano about to blow? Although, in fairness to him, the way her own face heated up as his avid gaze took in her breasts was pretty volcanic, too.

She watched him, practically panting as he reached across her and ran his hands around her hips. They ended up at the juncture of her thighs and commenced fumbling around there. “What are you doing?” she squeaked.

“Seat belt,” he explained smoothly. A metallic click punctuated the word. He yanked at the loose ends of the nylon web strapping, tightening the restraints. Looking straight at her chest, he muttered, “Is that too tight?”

Her chest did feel mashed by the shoulder straps, but she wasn’t about to say so. And wasn’t snug supposed to be good...when it came to seat belts? “It’s fine,” she managed to croak.

He reached over her head to a hook and put a pair of clamshell headphones over her ears. She felt about six years old, the way he was treating her. He even pivoted the microphone down in front of her mouth.

“All set?” he murmured.

“I guess so.” It was considerate of him to hook her in like this and make sure she was secure. But it was deeply unsettling having a man’s hands all over her like that. Her brain said it was bad unsettling, but her lady parts declared it definitely good unsettling. She pressed her knees tightly together and tried to ignore the sudden throbbing in said traitorous lady parts.

He slipped into the left seat and strapped himself in quickly. His hands flew across the dials and switches as he read aloud from the checklist Velcroed to his left thigh. His strong fingers were mesmerizing as they pressed and flicked and twisted the controls.

There was something almost unbearably intimate about having his voice piped directly into her ears as he announced, “Radio check. One, two, three, four, five. How do you copy?” He looked over at her expectantly.

“Uh, was that for me?” she mumbled.

“I hear you five by five. How about me?” he repeated a little impatiently.

“Well, obviously I hear you because I’m answering you,” she replied testily.

He grinned and, on cue, her stomach did a picture-perfect, double-twisting layout. He responded drily, “The usual response is ‘Loud and clear,’ or a numerical description of volume and clarity, each rated on a scale from one to five.”

“Um, okay. You’re five plus five.”

His grin widened. Swear to God, the guy looked like a male fashion model as he replied, “Roger.”

“I’m not Roger. My name’s Marley.” She knew what
roger
meant, but she couldn’t resist making him smile again. He gifted her with a big, beautiful one that made her insides melt a little more.

“Hi, Marley, I’m Archer.”

“Archer what?”

“Just Archer. And you’re not supposed to interrupt the pilot in the middle of a checklist. I might miss something important.”

“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to—I’ll be quiet now.”

That million-dollar grin flashed again as he reached up to push and hold a fat button. The big rotor overhead started to turn slowly, and the sound of a jet engine revving up grew louder and louder. Her heart pounded as he completed the engine-start checklist and ran something he called a before-takeoff checklist. He radioed for clearance to lift off. A voice answered, clearing them to proceed on their filed flight plan.

“Sure you want to do this?” he asked grimly.

What was she missing? He was conveying something significant with that dark tone of voice. Something unspoken. A question, maybe. But she had no idea what it was. Confused, she nodded, and then belatedly remembered he might not be looking at her. “Um, roger wilco.”


Wilco
means you will comply. I haven’t given you an instruction to comply with.” A pause. “Yet.” He pushed forward on the throttles with one hand and eased back on the stick thing between his knees with the other.

And just like that, the ground fell away from her feet and they were rising straight up into the air. It was exhilarating. She’d never flown in a nearly all-clear helicopter before. It was like flying inside a bubble. A very thin, fragile bubble. But the visibility was incredible. It was easy to forget she was inside an aircraft at all. She felt as if she was levitating above the earth. Guess she could check that off her bucket list. Not that it had ever been
on
her bucket list.

The helicopter’s nose dipped slightly and it eased forward, picking up speed, slanting into a turn that took her breath away.

“What’s your last name, Marley?” her pilot—Archer—asked.

“Stringer. Marley Stringer.”

“Nice to meet you. I’d shake your hand, but mine are full at the moment.”

She looked down at his hands, so comfortable and capable on the controls. The kind of hands a girl could put herself into and trust him to know what to do...

Dang, she was getting horny in her spinsterish old age.

“Is Archer your first or last name?”

“Both.”

O-
kay
. Was he some kind of aviation rock star who only needed one name? “Your parents named you Archer Archer? Did they hate you or something?”

“Something like that.” His eyes went dark and turbulent, and her photographer’s keen eye detected sadness. Regret. Rough childhood, huh?

Trees were streaking by below their feet now, fast enough to make her nervous. She blurted, “Did your folks give you some horrible first name like, I don’t know, Eugene?”

He laughed, a little reluctantly if she wasn’t mistaken. But interestingly enough, he didn’t elaborate on his actual name.
Ooh
, a mystery. She never could resist those. Somebody in the payroll department for the movie would know his full name. She could stroll over there after they landed...

He interrupted her scheming with “We’ll reach the shoot site in about fifteen minutes. Pretty quickly after we get there, we’ll make our run down the valley. You’ll get one shot at this. My boss reported before I headed out to Minerva that all the pyrotechnics are ready to go.”

“Who’s Minerva?” An ugly spike of regret poked her in the side. Of course this cover-model guy had a gorgeous, confident, sexy girlfriend with an exotic name.

He patted the top of the dashboard. “This is Minerva.”

“You named your helicopter?” Ahh. He’d named it after his gorgeous, confident, sexy girlfriend, then.

He shrugged. “Yeah. I call every ’copter I fly after my grandmother.”

His grandmother? That was so sweet! Although he emphatically struck her as the kind of guy who wouldn’t appreciate being called “sweet.”

“She took me in and forced me to get my head together when my mom died.”

“Oh,” Marley said cautiously. But she didn’t have a chance to ask him about it.

BOOK: High-Stakes Playboy
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