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Like No One Else : Can Love Save Her Life?
She Can Run
Ballet dancer Tommie Purnell has finally left her troubles behind her. After a devastating scandal derails her dancing career in New York, she flees to Houston for a fresh start. Once her new dance studio takes off, the rest of Tommie's life follows suit. But when a local woman connected to Tommie turns up dead, Tommie is petrified...and doesn't know where to turn.
But She Can't Hide
When veteran homicide detective Paulo Sanchez walks through her door, Tommie wonders if her troubles have just doubled. She and Paulo had a torrid attraction years ago...but she's sworn off men because of too many broken dreams. Yet their sizzling attraction can't be denied, and as their passion intensifies, the killer's body count also rises. That's when all clues point toward the one person Tommie thought she could finally believe in...
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December 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Like No One Else by Maureen Smith
Monday, November 9
Fifteen young girls clad in pink leotards and matching tights formed a line at the wooden barre backed by a long wall of mirrors. The dancers' faces were a study of concentration as their ballet instructor walked the length of the studio floor, inspecting postures and manually correcting positions. Her rare nods of approval elicited smiles from the lucky recipients--smiles that evaporated the moment another rapid-fire command was issued.
"Adagio, ladies! Release on one, demi-plie on two, pas de bourree on three, close on four!"
Dressed in a black leotard, a sheer black skirt, and black leggings, with her long dark hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, Tommie Purnell watched as her students executed the steps with fluid, graceful movements.
"Good," she called above the music flowing from a baby grand piano tucked into a corner of the room. The pianist, a stout, elderly black woman with skin the color of almonds and a tight cap of gray curls covering her head, had been hired shortly after Tommie opened her dance studio six months ago.
"And now for the petit allegro combination," Tommie announced, facing the class as she prepared to demonstrate. "Stand in first position, demi-plie, straighten the knees--" She broke off suddenly, her gaze snared by a darkly handsome Hispanic man who had appeared in the open doorway of the studio. A battered leather jacket clung to his broad shoulders, and black jeans hung low on lean, narrow hips. Dark, penetrating eyes met and held Tommie's in the mirror.
Her pulse thudded.
Abruptly the music stopped, and in the ensuing silence, one last dissonant chord rang out.
Tommie spun around in her pointe shoes to face the newcomer. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
Paulo Sanchez inclined his dark head. "Hello to you, too, Miss Purnell." Even from across the room, his deep voice made Tommie's stomach clench, a familiar reaction she didn't care to explore.
Seized by a sudden, terrible fear, she stared at him. "Is it my sister? Or Marcos? Did something hap--"
"Francesca and your nephew are fine," Paulo assured her. "And so are your parents and Sebastien."
Tommie inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't think she could handle another crisis, not after everything she and her family had already been through. Besides, she'd had no reason to panic. If there had been a family emergency, someone would have called her immediately, black sheep or not.
Belatedly she remembered her students poised at the barre. They were staring at Paulo, undoubtedly struck by the incongruity of the good-looking, dangerous-edged man who seemed as out of place in that bastion of femininity as a Spanish conquistador at a tea party.
Tommie glanced at her watch and saw that the hour was up. After she issued a stern reminder to her class to practice what they had learned that afternoon, the students, in keeping with ballet tradition, clapped for Tommie and the pianist before they were formally dismissed. Chattering among themselves, the girls stuffed their pointe shoes inside duffel bags, gathered their belongings, and filed out of the room to meet their mothers, who were patiently waiting in a small observation area separated from the main studio by a glass partition. Normally the parents lingered after class to talk to Tommie. Today they departed with raised eyebrows and demure smiles directed at Paulo.
Scowling, Tommie stalked across the room toward him, her ponytail swinging from side to side. "I hope you have a damned good reason for interrupting my class," she groused.
A faintly mocking smile curved firm, sensual lips. "And if I don't?" Paulo challenged.
Tommie's temper flared, even as she silently cursed herself for allowing him to get under her skin. Not that this was anything new. Paulo Sanchez had been getting under her skin ever since she met him four years ago at her sister's wedding rehearsal dinner. From the moment Tommie and Paulo locked gazes, the chemistry between them had been powerful, sizzling with electricity. But Tommie, who had just gotten out of a bad relationship, knew the last thing she needed was a rebound romance. Still, it had taken every ounce of willpower she possessed to resist Paulo, to ignore the way her pulse raced as he'd escorted her down the aisle at the wedding ceremony, to ignore her throbbing breasts and her aching loins as they'd slow-danced together at the reception. By accident or design, Tommie had caught the bride's bouquet while Paulo came away with the garter belt. To this day, she still remembered the wicked gleam in his eyes as his big, callused hands had slowly traveled up her thigh to secure the garter, leaving a trail of scorched nerve endings.
That, finally, had been her undoing.
Right then and there she'd decided to throw caution to the wind and indulge in a one-night stand with Paulo. No strings attached. No empty promises. Just one night of hot, mind-blowing sex between two mature, consenting adults who would go their separate ways in the morning.
After joining the rest of the guests in sending off the happy bride and groom, Tommie had gone in search of Paulo, confident that he would jump at the chance to sleep with her. He'd been seducing her from the moment they met, wearing down her defenses until she'd had no choice but to succumb to him.
But when Tommie discovered Paulo and a leggy brunette making out in the bridal suite, she'd been stunned. And crushed. It was abundantly clear that Paulo, having already grown bored with Tommie, had moved on to the next diversion.
Hearing Tommie's shocked gasp, the couple had sprung apart on the chaise longue. To her credit, the brunette had looked suitably embarrassed as she tugged at her tight little dress. Paulo, on the other hand, had met Tommie's outraged glare with a lazy, insolent grin. As if debauching women at weddings was nothing new to him.
Without mincing words, Tommie had ordered the couple out of her sister's bridal suite. The next time she saw them, Paulo was helping the woman into his car. He'd glanced up, and seeing Tommie framed in the doorway of the beautiful waterfront mansion where the wedding had been held, he'd winked and blown her a kiss. She'd felt as humiliated as if he'd jilted her at the altar.
"Why, Tomasina, aren't you going to introduce me to your handsome visitor?"
Pulled out of her reverie, Tommie glanced over to find her pianist, Hazel Calhoun, standing there with an inquisitive smile on her bespectacled face as she eyed Paulo with unabashed curiosity.
Grudgingly Tommie performed the introductions.
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Calhoun," Paulo said, shaking the woman's hand. "You play beautifully."
Hazel beamed with pleasure. "Why, thank you very much, Mr. Sanchez. I'm so glad you enjoyed the music."
"I did. And please call me Paulo."
Tommie watched in disbelief as her pianist--a sixty five- year-old grandmother, community activist, and church deaconess--giggled and blushed to the gray roots of her scalp.
"Where have you been hiding this delightful young man?" she said chidingly to Tommie.
"Not far enough, apparently," Tommie grumbled.
Paulo's dark eyes glimmered with amusement. "It's all right, Mrs. Calhoun. Tommie and I haven't seen each other since her sister's wedding in San Antonio four years ago. We've got a lot of, ah, catching up to do."
Hazel smiled warmly at him. "Are you from San Antonio, too?"
"Yes, ma'am. Born and raised."
"Like Tomasina." Hazel seemed inordinately pleased that her employer and Paulo shared a common background. "And now here you both are, in Houston. You must have followed each other," she teased.
Paulo chuckled. "I've been here for two years, so I'll let you decide who followed whom."
Tommie bristled. "I didn't follow you!"
Paulo quirked a brow at her. "No?"
"Of course not! I didn't even know you'd moved here until after I arrived."
"Whatever you say," Paulo drawled.
Tommie scowled. "I didn't--"
"It was awfully nice of you to stop by for a visit this afternoon, Paulo," Hazel smoothly intervened. "I wish I could stay and chat with you longer, but I have to run to a meeting at church." She paused, her dark eyes lighting up as a sudden idea struck her. "Why don't you stay and have dinner with Tomasina? I baked a fresh pan of lasagna for her last night, and there's enough to feed an army."
Stifling a groan at the woman's obvious attempt at matchmaking, Tommie quickly interjected, "That's very generous of you, Mrs. Calhoun. But I'm sure Paulo didn't intend to hang around that long. He's a homicide detective. He's probably needed somewhere this very minute."
"Actually," Paulo countered with a hint of that devilish grin, "I'm off duty. And it just so happens that I skipped lunch this afternoon. A home-cooked meal sounds great."
"Wonderful!" Hazel exclaimed, as if he'd just promised to feed all the starving children in Africa.
When Tommie glowered at Paulo, he chuckled, a low, husky rumble that made her belly quiver.
After Hazel left, Tommie locked up the studio for the evening. As she led Paulo up a flight of stairs to her second-story loft, she could feel the searing intensity of his gaze on her backside.
She unlocked her front door with unsteady fingers and quickly crossed the threshold, gesturing him inside.
"Bienvenido a mi casa."
"I didn't know you spoke Spanish," Paulo drawled as he brushed past her.
"There's a lot you don't know about me," Tommie retorted.
He turned to face her, one heavy black brow raised. "Is that a challenge?" he asked softly.
Tommie met his gaze unflinchingly. "Just a statement of fact."
They stared at each other for a long, charged moment.
Paulo seemed to have gotten closer or loomed larger. She could feel the heat from his body, could smell the old leather of his jacket. At least three days' worth of stubble darkened his square jaw, and his thick black hair was longer than she remembered, brushing his collar. His eyes were deep-set and piercing, a shade of brown so intense that at times they appeared to be black. They were accentuated by chiseled cheekbones, a firm, sensual mouth, and a swarthy complexion that attested to his Mexican heritage. He was five foot eleven inches of solid power and muscle. Not as tall as Tommie normally preferred, but tall enough that she'd been able to wear stiletto heels at her sister's wedding without having to worry about towering over him. After the ceremony, in fact, several guests had remarked on what a striking couple she and Paulo made, how perfect they'd looked together--comments Tommie had laughingly dismissed, though deep down inside she'd agreed.
That afternoon, wearing a black leather jacket, black jeans, and scuffed black boots, Paulo looked every bit the tough guy he was. A potent combination of strength, danger, and raw animal magnetism. Tommie told herself to back away from him, but for the first time in her life, her legs wouldn't obey her command.
As she stood there, air trapped in her lungs, Paulo's gaze slid from her face down to the scooped neckline of her leotard, lingering on the swell of her breasts. Her breath quickened, and to her everlasting shame, her nipples hardened under his hot, bold appraisal. His gaze darkened and his nostrils flared slightly, letting her know he'd discerned her body's reaction to him. Tommie had never felt more exposed in her life, and that was saying a lot, considering she'd once moonlighted as a stripper.
Slowly, deliberately, Paulo lifted his eyes to her flushed face. She stared at him, acutely conscious of her sensitized nipples rubbing against the fabric of her sports bra, the melting warmth spreading from her stomach to her loins. She couldn't remember the last time, if ever, she'd been so thoroughly aroused by a man merely looking at her. If Paulo chose that moment to kiss her, she honestly didn't know whether she would have the strength to resist him.
And judging by the mischievous gleam in his eyes, he knew it, too.
With one hand he reached up and cradled her face, the pad of his thumb brushing her full lower lip. A shiver rippled down her body. Her heart thundered.
His gaze roamed appreciatively across her face. "You are an incredibly beautiful woman, Senorita Purnell," he murmured huskily.
Tommie said nothing. She didn't trust her voice.
Paulo held her gaze a moment longer, then dropped his hand with obvious reluctance and stepped back. Air rushed into Tommie's lungs as he turned and sauntered away, glancing casually around the loft.
"Nice," he remarked.