Authors: Kitty Bucholtz
The masked man looked stricken. His mouth worked soundlessly until the words finally came out. “Can I help you?”
Tori followed his gaze to see both her hands still inside her bodice. She snatched them out. The quick movement undid some of her work, so she hunched her shoulders a bit to block his line of sight, pushed and prodded—bloody hands be damned—and sat up straight again.
She cleared her throat. “Thank you, no, I’m fine.”
He raised his eyebrows. Even in the darkness, Tori was sure she saw him fighting back a smile. Then she realized what he meant—not her
“Oh!” She felt blood rush to her face. “I’ll be fine. I just have to get my purse back.” She moved to get up and winced.
Zorro bent to one knee. His cape swirled around them, giving Tori the strange feeling that they were alone together. Her heart raced. Behind the mask, his eyes looked kind but intense.
He held out a fluffy pink heart on a silver chain. “Yours?” he asked. “The kid dropped it. I guess it didn’t go with his outfit.” Zorro had the same expression her dad and brother got whenever they looked at her purse. Kind of like they were about to heave.
Tori gasped. Sparing a glance for the dark stranger, she unclasped the heart-shaped bag to find everything still there. The mugger must’ve dropped it before he could open it.
“Th-thank you,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. A wave of emotion washed over her. Not a swirl of feelings like when she and Lexie were together. It was more specific...
. Similar to when she was with her sister, but deeper somehow, more stable. She was absolutely and inexplicably safe. She stared into Zorro’s eyes, trying to figure out what was happening.
If it weren’t for the “no men” rule, Tori would find a way to get to know this man better. She’d never felt safer, but she’d learned her sister’s lessons. And her mother’s. She needed an exit strategy.
Really? So was he. Had she smiled first? If so, only because of that warm, wonderful feeling wrapping around them.
Zorro’s crooked smile lifted higher on the left. It made him look young and mischievous. This guy was dangerously cute. Gorgeous she could walk away from, but cute…
Tori cleared her throat and looked away.
Get a grip
. She took a deep breath to clear her head. Oh geez, he smelled wonderful. Something she did
want to notice. She pulled away, her nerves tingling.
“Thank you for finding my purse,” she said. She pulled her right leg under her to leverage herself up, but forgot about her skinned palms. As soon as they touched the sidewalk, she gasped and curled her wrists toward her body.
Zorro leaned over and picked up Tori’s hands. Turning them palm up, he grunted. “Bet that stings.”
His quiet, deep voice wrapped around her heart. His touch set her mind and body at ease. She was exactly where she was supposed to be.
She shook her head and leaned back a few inches. “Not as much as my leg,” she tried to joke.
“Let me see.” He laid her hands in her lap and gently prodded at her skinned-up leg. “Can you stand?”
Tending to her injuries, he was more focused on her than ever. It was disconcerting, uncomfortable, and fabulous. Tori wondered what it would be like to be the focus of his attention long-term.
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” she said, pushing his hands away and grimacing as her palms made contact. She should go home.
Rule #1—If you’re attracted to them, they’re bad for you.
Lexie and Tori had created the rules for their protection. Whoever Zorro really was under that mask, she feared he was the kind of man who would make her forget the rules.
Gathering her legs under her with as little wincing and groaning as she could manage, Tori tried to stand without giving Zorro an eyeful of black lace underwear. Before she realized his intent, Zorro grasped Tori’s ribcage and lifted her to her feet. Well, not exactly to her feet; they were dangling off the ground. He held her hundred-and-not-telling pounds off the sidewalk with ease. Too much ease. As if he were holding a teddy bear. How could he do that?
The idea of “superheroes” whizzed through her mind. But no, her parents insisted that the news stories were only publicity stunts by the city and the police department to make them look like they were tough on crime. Tori had never seen a superhero, but her experience with governmental agencies made her believe they’d say anything to look better to the public. Her parents were probably right. Zorro must be a bodybuilder or something.
“See if your ankle will hold your weight,” he said, and he lowered her until her feet touched the sidewalk.
Tori put most of her weight on her good foot, the high-heeled shoe holding her four inches above her normal height of five feet seven. Her other ankle throbbed. She needed a minute to get used to the discomfort before she walked home. And it was an excuse to tilt her head back and examine her savior. Oh yeah, much taller than her dad. Gorgeous, deep-brown eyes. Tori couldn’t tell if the warmth she experienced came from his hands around her waist, or something else.
The attraction intensified as they gazed into each other’s eyes. She wanted more. They leaned closer. Contentment and peace stirred in her heart. He wouldn’t let anything hurt her, she
it. She couldn’t explain it, but that didn’t make it less true. The silence between them turned thick and warm. It wasn’t sex on Tori’s mind; it was that strange, confusing feeling of safety. Either way, it came down to the same thing—she wanted to be with him.
The thought of getting closer to the electrifying man before her filled Tori’s mind until her body followed. She took a step toward him on her twisted ankle—and tripped yet again.
JOE lunged for the woman falling at his feet. At first, when he’d held her at arm’s length, he’d focused on her features—soft lips, a slender nose, pretty eyes, and was that a velvet mole? He’d gotten distracted with her breasts…soft and plump and touchable, and pretty much falling out of her costume. She looked like the cover of a romance novel. He’d never read one, but he was pretty sure the men in those books got to touch what they were ogling.
But he felt that strange feeling inside expanding. It seemed to radiate out from his chest, similar to the way his super powers gathered just before he used them. He needed to protect this woman.
Joe swallowed. Maybe it was something he ate, heartburn from onions. No, he’d eaten lasagna tonight. Freezer dinner. Never had heartburn from frozen lasagna.
Protect this woman
Could it be something in his superhero blood that caused this reaction? He’d never felt anything like it before, never heard of anything like it. Wherever it came from, the feeling was powerful…and strangely peaceful. He felt stronger with her in his arms right now than he’d ever felt before. Which was ridiculous since he could stop a bullet with his bare skin, but there it was. Was there something about her that was reacting to his powers somehow?
Pirate Girl gazed up at him with a look of wonder of her face. She felt it, too.
He tried to hold in his laughter. “Uh…well, you look even more like a pirate now.”
Pirate Girl looked down at her torn stockings, spots of blood on the white lace edging of her black satin skirt. She touched her blond wig to see if it was askew. A jaunty felt pirate’s hat had been sewn onto the wig.
Joe wondered about her real hair color.
Her fingers found the eye patch still covering her forehead above her right eye. She pulled it down. “Aargh! Good thing you found the little devil before I did, or he’d be shark bait by now,” she said in a ridiculous attempt at a pirate voice.
Joe laughed, and Pirate Girl laughed with him.
“I love Halloween,” she said. “You can be anyone you want.”
The wistful note in her voice hit Joe in the stomach. He’d never wanted to be anyone else. The Clarke family superheroes went back generations. What could be better than that?
“Who do you want to be?” he asked.
The wistfulness crept into her expression and, for a moment, Joe thought she looked sad. Then she said in a low voice, her eyes dropping to his chest, “I think maybe with you I could be…myself.”
Joe’s protective instincts shifted up a gear and he pulled her closer. He didn’t know what to say. “So you’ll be falling for me often then?”
She burst into laughter. He could swear she moved further into his embrace.
He grinned. Playing the hero had never been this much fun before. The superheroes in his family had protected Double Bay for years, and Joe took his role as a guardian of the city seriously. It could be hard, lonely work, but tonight…
Tonight, rescuing this woman gave him more than just satisfaction with his work. He loved her laugh, spontaneous, full of warmth and joy. Her smiled bewitched him. He felt as if all the problems of the world were manageable, as if he were more powerful when she smiled at him.
“You have to admit, you’re having a lot of problems tonight,” he said. “Should I call your keeper?” He wrapped his arms more firmly around her, and she didn’t protest. He felt strong enough to stop a train.
Pirate Girl laughed again. “I really should have one.”
Joe let one of his hands run slowly down her back, enjoying the feel of her relaxing in his arms. Really enjoying the feel of her breasts pressed against his chest. Wondering how long he could stretch out this rescue. An hour? All night? Every night?
“You need a job?”
Joe’s hand stopped moving. Could she read his mind? The job of “keeper” or “keep her”?
“Well, I am a member of the neighborhood watch,” he said. “I think I could handle it.”
The mole on her cheek caught his attention as she asked, “We have a neighborhood watch?”
“We do,” he said to the mole. He could tell now that it was one of those press-on velvet ones, but he liked it all the same. “Unfortunately, I’m the
Joe raised his gaze to hers as she giggled again. She did that a lot. He didn’t know what she found so amusing, but he liked it. Neither too high nor too low, it reminded him of sleigh bells. Bright, warm, festive. Perfect for this time of year.
“Oh, well,” she said, heaving a sigh of mock disappointment. “I guess you better not quit then.” She looked around the dilapidated neighborhood. “I think we need you here.”
Joe followed the rise and fall of her breasts as she sighed. “Mmm-hmm,” he said.
“Hey!” She slapped at his shoulder. “I saw that.”
“Wha-at?” He grinned at her. It was hard to be serious when he felt so good. It brought out the tease in him, a skill he and his brothers had developed into an art form living with sisters. “You want help putting those back?”
She shifted in her one high-heeled shoe and pushed her body more firmly into his. Joe realized she was trying to hide her exposed flesh. Her little suede jacket wasn’t helping. Women and their impractical clothes. But who was he to complain, especially now?
“Close your eyes,” she ordered.
“It’s hard to take you seriously when you’re laughing,” he said, causing her mock stern look to crumble into giggles before she attempted solemnity again.
Joe obeyed. His mother had raised him with good manners, but he wanted to sneak another peek. “Can I open them yet?”
She moved around in his arms, and he loosened them to give her more room to maneuver without falling again.
He heard the laughter in her voice and it swirled around in his chest, warming him from the inside out. “Now?” he asked.
More movement. He could hear material sliding around, and the sound was doing things to his insides. “Now?” he asked, bringing his lusty thoughts in line before he embarrassed himself. “Now? Now?”
.” She laughed and one arm slid around his neck again. “You must’ve been someone’s little brother.”