Interior decorator Suzanne Barron's new tenant is the most dangerously sexy man she's ever met. Navy Commander John Huntington, a former SEAL (aka 'Midnight Man') works best under cover of darkness. Within hours of meeting him, Suzanne has wild, no-holds barred sex with John, then panics at the depth of her passionate response to such a powerful and dangerous warrior. Suzanne doesn't do sex like that. John is definitely someone she needs to avoid for her own peace of mind. But when killers come for her, Suzanne knows she can turn to only one man. John will guard and protect her body. But who will guard and protect her body against John? A Romantica® erotic romance from Ellora's Cave
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Ellora's Cave Publishing Inc
November 11, 2004
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Excerpt from Midnight Man by Lisa Marie Rice
She's scared of me, he thought.
Seven hours ago, he'd killed two men and wounded four others. Death and violence clung to him like a shroud. He was still wired from the kill, blood pumping.
Which might be why ever since crossing the threshold of Suzanne Barron's office, he couldn't think of anything but bedding the damned woman.
John Huntington eyed Suzanne Barron across her very stylish desk in her very stylish office. She was stylish herself: classy, elegant, stunningly beautiful. Smooth, creamy ivory skin, dark blonde hair, gray eyes like a pool of still mountain water, watching him warily.
"So, Mr. Huntington, you didn't say in your email exactly what your business is."
The way she was looking at him, if he'd said 'bear hunting and cannibalism' she just might believe him.
In the corporate world he was a wolf carefully dressed in the sheep's clothing of pencil pushers--Brioni and Armani. It took a while to see the kind of man he was and some people never managed until it was too late.
But right now, just in from Venezuela, he looked like the wolf he was. In black leather jacket, black turtleneck sweater, black jeans and combat boots, adrenaline still coursing through his system, he wasn't anyone pretty Ms. Barron would or should want in her building. Especially since-he'd seen the signs-she lived alone.
She was already leery of him and she didn't even know about the Sig-Sauer in the shoulder holster, the K-bar knife in the scabbard between his shoulder blades or the .22 in the ankle holster, otherwise she would have probably ordered him out of the building.
She watched him, anxiety clouding luminous eyes.
He was coming down off an adrenaline high. The consulting job teaching soft oil executives in Venezuela how to deal with a hard world had gone very bad very fast. A small army of Frente de la Libertad terrorists had come down from the hills and tried to kidnap the entire top management of Western Oil Corporation there on a junket.
Luckily he'd been on the spot and had routed them, taking down three tangos and wounding four. The rest had been mopped up by the local police.
John had been flown back up Stateside in the grateful CEO's private Learjet, with a contract to provide security for Western Oil worldwide until the end of time and a $300,000 bonus check in his pocket, just in time for his appointment with the gorgeous Ms. Suzanne Barron.
Time to convince her that he wasn't dangerous. He was, but not to her.
"I own and run my own company, Alpha Security International, Ms. Barron. I have an office just off Pioneer Square, but my company is expanding quickly and I need new premises. There's plenty of space here."
John looked around her office. He hadn't been expecting anything like this. The ad in The Oregonian had simply stated the footage and the location, in Pearl, a rough part of town slowly gentrifying. Outside was a wasteland. Walking through the front door of the two-story brick building had been like walking into a little slice of heaven.
And the four interconnected rooms she'd showed him-it was as if they'd been fashioned for him. Large, spacious, high ceilinged. The smell of new wood and old brick, so completely different from the modern crapola suite he'd rented in an expensive high rise off Pioneer Square.
Inside, the building felt like an exquisite jewel with its brass fittings, light hardwood floors and soft pastel furniture. She'd put up some discreet lights to mark the holiday season and the air was spiced with the evergreen boughs on the heavy mantelpiece and what smelled like oranges and cinnamon.
Harp music that sounded as if it was being beamed down directly from heaven played softly from hidden speakers.
He'd had an instant sense of homecoming, strange in a man who'd never had a home. His nerves, still jangled from the takedown, started calming. This was exactly what he'd been looking for, without knowing he was looking for it.
Add to that the cool, luscious blonde who'd met him at the door, offering her soft, slim hand. His body, already primed for battle, had immediately become primed for sex.
Hell, since when had he become so easily distractible? In the normal course of events, gunfire couldn't distract him from a mission. Of course, gunfire wasn't a wildly attractive blonde, but his mission here was to find a new office and now that he'd seen this place, he was determined to have it. And the landlady. But first, he had to get his hormones under control; otherwise he'd come up empty-handed on both counts.
Down boy, he ordered himself.
He must be pumping hormones into the air by the ton, because she was sitting way back in her chair in an unconscious attempt to put distance between them - the thought that a desk and some air could stop him if he really wanted to jump her was so ludicrous he wanted to snort - and her eyes were so wide he could see the milky whites around the pupils.
Time to get her to climb down from that emotional ledge and reassure her that he wouldn't gobble her up.
Not yet anyway.
He studied the room, deliberately not looking at her. He kept his face bland, giving her time to study him, and heard her breathing start to slow down.
Pretending to study the room was a ploy but he soon found himself distracted by its beauty. He didn't have the tools to analyze how she did it, but he could appreciate the end result. Stunning, soft pastel colors. Comfortable furniture that managed to be both modern and feminine. She'd kept the architectural details of the period - early '20s he'd guess. Everything - every detail, every nook and cranny, every object - was gorgeous.
She'd had enough time to calm down so he turned back to her.
"Did you do the restoration work, Ms. Barron?"
The question relaxed her. She looked around, a smile curving soft pale pink lips. It was raining outside. The dim water-washed light coming in through the tall windows turned her skin the color of the mother of pearl bowl holding some kind of fragrant plant on the windowsill.
"Yes. I inherited the building from my grandparents. It used to be a shoe factory but the company went bankrupt 20 years ago and has stood empty ever since. I'm a designer and I decided to restore it myself instead of selling it."
"You did a wonderful job."
Her eyes rose to meet his. She stared at him and her breath came out in a little huff. "Thank you."
She toyed for a moment with a pen, tapping it lightly against the highly polished surface of the desk. Realizing she was betraying nerves, she put it down again. Her hands were as lovely as the rest of her, slim and white. She had two expensive-looking rings on her right hand, no rings on the left.
Good. No other man had her and now that he'd spotted her, no other man was going to get her. Not until he'd finished with her and that was going to take a long, long time.
Her hands were trembling slightly.
Suzanne Barron might be one of the loveliest women he'd ever seen but reduced to essentials she was an animal--a human animal--and she could sense, probably smell, the danger in him, especially acute now.
He'd always had this effect on civilians. Well, he reminded himself, he was a civilian now, too. He wasn't in the service anymore where he could be instantly recognized for what he was.
All his life he'd lived in a fraternity of like-minded men, friend or foe. Fellow warriors knew who he was and usually treaded lightly around him.
Civilians never knew how to cope, like lambs sensing a tiger had infiltrated the flock. Uneasy without knowing why.
Moving slowly so as not to alarm her, he reached across and handed her a folder. His hand briefly touched hers. It was like touching silk. Gray eyes widened at the touch and he withdrew.
She rested her hand on the cover sheet. A small furrow developed between curved ash eyebrows.
"What's this, Mr. Huntington?"
"References, Ms. Barron. My CV, service record, credit rating from my bank, three letters of recommendation, and a list of the major clients of my company." He smiled. "I'm honest, pay my taxes, I'm solvent and practice good hygiene."
"I don't doubt any of that, Mr. Huntington."
A thin line appeared between her brows as she leafed through the folder. He kept still, moving only his lungs, a trick he'd learned on the battlefield.
"What do you mean by service--Oh." She looked up. Something moved in her eyes. "You're a Commander. An officer in the Army." He could see her relaxing faintly. An officer seemed safe to her. She couldn't know what he'd done in the service; otherwise she sure as hell wouldn't be relaxing.
"Was an officer. My discharge papers are in there, too. And I was in the Navy." He tried to keep the scorn out of his voice and barely restrained himself from snorting. Army indeed. Candy-ass soldiers, all of them. "It's not the same thing."
Her smile deepened. She was softening. Good. John was good at reading body language. The lease was a done deal. She relaxed as she read his service record.
The record mentioned some of his medals, enough to impress a civilian. The rest-for missions no one would ever know about-were in his shadowbox.
The list of clients didn't hurt, either. He had more than a few Fortune 500 companies in there.
She now knew he wasn't going to get drunk and disorderly. He wasn't going to skip town without paying the rent. He wasn't going to make off with her silver. Which was something, since she had a lot of it in here, mostly in the form of antique silver frames and a collection of tea services. Everything in his file said he was a sober highly respected citizen.
What the file didn't mention was that before becoming an officer he'd been a trained sniper-scout, with a certified kill at 2500 yards. That he knew 45 different ways of killing a man with his bare hands. That he could blow up her building with what was under her kitchen sink, and that by this time tomorrow night he'd be in her bed, in her.
"Navy. Navy officer. Sorry. Should I call you Commander Huntington or Mister Huntington?"
"John would do nicely, ma'am. I'm retired."
"John. I'm Suzanne." A lull in the rain outside created a little oasis of quiet in the room.
All his senses were keen. He could hear the breath soughing in and out of her lungs, the slick sound of nylon as she recrossed her legs under the desk.
He had a view only of the delicate ankles but he knew they were attached to long, slender legs. He could just feel her thighs around his waist, calves hugging his hips hips...
"I beg your pardon?" She'd said something and he'd been so busy fantasizing getting her into bed he'd missed it.
John shifted, uncomfortably aware that it had been over six months since he'd last had sex. He'd just been too damned busy with getting his company up and running. Their gazes met and held.
"You'll want to call the people on that list." He kept his voice low, calm, unthreatening.
"I will, yes." She drew in a deep breath. "Well, um..." She turned a ring nervously around her finger. "So. I guess - I guess you'll be my new tenant. My first. You can do whatever you want in the rental. Though I'd rather you didn't knock down any walls."
"I could never in a million years do as good a job as you did decorating your office. I might just hire you to do mine."
"Actually, um..." Her pale skin turned the most delicate, delightful pink. She reached behind her for a file. She opened it and turned it around so he could see it. "While designing this office, I fiddled with a few ideas for the rental. I used a different color scheme, made it more..." She looked up at him through thick lashes - "more masculine." John moved his chair forward. His senses were so heightened that he could smell her skin. Some mixture of lotion and perfume and warm woman. She was blushing furiously now under his intense scrutiny.
John wrenched his gaze back to the drawings she had fanned out on the desktop, and then he focused in on what he was seeing.
"This is wonderful," he breathed. He studied each sheet carefully. She'd used unusual tones--dark gray and cream and a funny blue--to create a sleek, modern environment. Practical, comfortable, refined. It was as if she had walked around inside his head to pull out exactly what he wanted without him knowing he wanted it. "Elegant, but understated. I really like the beige ceiling with the blue thingies."
"Ecru." She smiled.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm sure you have technical terms in your business, Commander Huntington--John. Just as I have them in mine. The colors are slate, ecru and teal, not gray, beige and blue. And the blue thingies are stencils." She pushed the drawings across the desk to him. "Keep these. You're welcome to them. And if you need any help in getting the furnishings, let me know. Nothing in my design is custom-made. You could buy everything immediately. I'd be happy to help. I get a professional discount at all the major retailers. "
"That's very generous of you. Would you be willing to design living quarters for me, too? For a fee, of course."
She drew in a quick breath. "Living quarters? You want - you want to live here, too?"
"Mm. There's plenty of space. Those three big back rooms would be more than enough for me. I keep odd hours in my business and I need to be close to the office. This would suit me fine. Now I want you to call some of the people on the list on page two."
"I beg your pardon?" When she shifted in her chair, some floral scent wafted his way. His nostrils flared to take it in.
"I've provided five people as character references. Call them. Call them before we sign the lease. We can do that tomorrow."
"I'm sure that won't be necessary, Comm - John."
"It's absolutely necessary, Suzanne." He looked around then brought his gaze back to her. "This is a beautiful space and you've done a great job renovating the building, but we're in a rough neighborhood."
It was one of the reasons he wanted his corporate headquarters here. He sometimes hired people who had looked wildly out of place in the prissy downtown building. Like Jacko, with his pierced nostrils and the viper tats.
"If you're going to be alone in a building with a man, you need to know who he is and that you're safe with him." His eyes bored into hers. "You'll be safe with me."
But not from me, he thought.
"I guess you're the expert." She blew out a little breath.
"Yes, ma'am. You'll call?"
Her eyes dropped to the paper. "Of course, if you want me to. You have an impressive list of references. Wait. Lieutenant Tyler Morrison, Portland Police Department. You know him?"
"Bud? Sure. We were in the service together. Then he quit and became a cop. Call him. And one more thing before I sign. What's your security system?"
"Security system? You mean like the alarm system? Let me check." She opened a Filofax and started poring over the pages with a tapered, pink-tipped finger. "I don't remember off-hand, but I know it was expensive. Ah, here we are. Interlock. Do you know them? Oh, how stupid of me. Of course you do, security is your business."
"I deal in personal security, not building security, but I know them." Interlock was a crappy outfit. They'd have snowed her with fancy alarms and 7 digit codes and their equipment could have come out of a cereal box. No freakin' way was he going to live and work in a building secured by Interlock. He stood up. "I'd appreciate it if you were to secure the alarms after I leave."
"I - okay." She stood up too; looking puzzled, and walked around the desk. "If you really want me to. I tend to just have the door locked during the day because it's so fussy putting on the alarm system then switching it off when I want to go out. So...I guess we have a deal?"
He stuck out his hand. After a second's hesitation, she offered hers. It was almost half the size of his, slim and fine-boned. He carefully applied a little pressure and ordered himself to let go. It was damned hard to do. What he wanted to do was pull her into his arms and take her down to the floor.
Some of that must have been coming through because her eyes widened in alarm. He stepped back.
"I'll start moving my stuff in tomorrow. And I'll definitely be taking you up on your offer to help me decorate. Of course I'd like to pay for the design of my office. I can see that a lot of work went into it."
She waved that away. "No, don't worry. I was just doodling. Consider the design a welcome present." She turned into the hallway and he followed, trying not to ogle her backside and trying not to be obvious about smelling the air in her wake. His men said he had the sense of smell of a bloodhound. He could smell cigarette smoke on a man's clothes a day after he'd smoked. Suzanne Barron's smell nearly brought him to his knees.
Her scent was perfume, something light and floral, mixed in with an apple-scented shampoo, the smell of freshly washed clothing and some indefinable something that he just knew was her skin. Soon, very soon, he'd be smelling her skin close up. Just a matter of time.
The sooner the better. Christ, the view from the back was as enticing as the one from the front--sleek curves, dark-honey hair bouncing with every step she took.
He'd never seen a woman as curvy yet as delicately made as Suzanne Barron. Everything about her was dainty, fine-boned. He was going to have to be careful. No rough sex when he took her to bed. He'd have to enter her slowly, let her get used to him before...
She turned and smiled at him. "That's all right, then."
All right! His eyes narrowed and his body quickened until he stopped himself just short of reaching for her. She's talking about the lease, you idiot, he told himself.
"I'll get a contract drawn up and have a copy of the keys made for you. When do you want to start moving in?"
Now! His body clamored. Right this second. But he had things to take care of. "I'll probably move some of my gear in tomorrow morning. I don't have much. Mostly filing cabinets and computer equipment. Lots of that." He smiled into her eyes. "You're going to order the rest of the furnishings for me, right? Spend whatever you have to, I'll be good for it."
She was looking up at him, breathing slowly.
She blinked and seemed to come out of a daze. "Oh, yes, um, that's right. And I'll have a copy of the keys made for you."
He opened the door. The contrast between what was behind him-a delicate lady in a jewel of a building-and what was in front of him-bleak burned out storefronts, liquor stores and empty lots-made him turn back to her. Little Miss Muffet had to know that there were spiders out there. Big bad ones.
"Check me out, Suzanne. Make sure you know whom you're putting in your house. Call Bud. Call him now."
Pale pink lips slightly parted, gray eyes wide, she stared at him. "Okay, I..." She swallowed. "I will."
"And set the security system when I leave."
She nodded, her eyes never leaving his face.
"Do you know the seven digit code by heart?"
"How do you -? All right, no I don't."
"Start getting used to keeping the building secure. Learn the code by heart. I'll bet you keep the code on a piece of paper taped to the underside of your desk. You're right-handed so it's probably taped to the right side."
She blew out a little breath and nodded. Bingo.
"That's not good. From now on keep the code in a safe and memorize it. You've got a security system, so use it. I want this building locked down after I leave."
"Yessir, Commander, sir." A dimple twinkled then disappeared. "Or would that be aye aye?"
"The correct answer is - yes, I'll do exactly as you say."
She was so close he could have seen the pores in her skin if she'd had any. Instead, her skin was as smooth and perfect as marble, except soft and warm, he'd bet. He had one foot out the door, stepping from one world into another. He had to force himself to move.
"Lock the door, Suzanne," he said again as he crossed the threshold, pulling on the handle.
He waited patiently on the steps until he heard the distinctive whump-ding of the Interlock security alarm going on then walked down the steps into the rainy morning...