Not even two weeks ago I posted about how much I love this story – and how I *ahem* got sucked into reading it again. All because I was looking for the perfect excerpt. Here’s the one I picked. Yeah, it’s a whole chapter. Sue me – I clearly have no self-control when it comes to this book. Also, while not overt, this excerpt IS pretty hot.
Knowing all too well the damage online trolls can inflict, game designer Emily Bartwell takes privacy seriously. Living in solitude and working remotely under a male alias gives her a sense of security. The sexy writer renting the house next door ignites desires she’d forgotten she had, and when he invites her to play games of a very different sort, Em is ready and willing. Even if it means breaking all her own rules to abide by his.
Undercover tech reporter Fox Mullins is so close to the biggest scoop of his career: finding the elusive programmer Phoenix. An increasingly erotic adventure with his reserved but passionate new neighbor is the ideal way to heat up the chilly Pacific Northwest nights as he tracks the brilliant gamer.
At first Fox is happy to help Em explore her newly awakened kinky side, no holds barred, no strings attached. But as they push the limits of intimacy, both physical and emotional, Fox discovers he’s not the only one keeping secrets. And revealing hers may mean betraying the one woman who embodies everything he desires.
She was killing him.
He hadn’t been lying about the anticipation bit. He liked a lot of foreplay. Denial and the slow build always led to the best sex. But that was always after the game was engaged. He rarely dealt with a drawn-out courtship. Though he had to laugh at himself, that this amount of time seemed extended to him.
She’d looked completely edible, however, hair pulled tight into that scalp-tugging ponytail, gray eyes huge in her delicate face, her unpainted mouth so pink and enticing. The desire to have her panting under him crawled through his veins.
Three-forty-five couldn’t come soon enough.
He’d lied about waiting though. If she didn’t show, he might have to go looking for her. A fine line there, chasing her enough to make her feel desired without scaring her into hiding or issuing an ultimatum she couldn’t back down on. A lot went on behind her serious eyes. More than an asshole ex who hadn’t put in an appearance in years.
Even Glory didn’t know that much about her—and she was surely Em’s closest friend on the island. He’d run hard up against the privacy ethic, though. Glory had told him what she thought he needed to know and clammed up on the rest. Lots of people on Lyra kept to themselves and that was how they liked it.
No questions asked. Ever.
He added what little Glory had spilled into his notes. Emily—Em to everyone, apparently, but she hadn’t given him that permission and he planned to abide by that until she did—liked to read, but Glory didn’t know what. She painted, never left the island, sometimes wouldn’t come into town for weeks at a time. Glory insisted that Emily loved her creamed chicken casserole, which made him seriously question her judgment because he’d never had a worse meal—and that she never dated anyone, to Glory’s knowledge.
The full background check came in, along with the one on coffee-shop Rob. Glory too. No one could accuse him of not being thorough in his search. Phoenix lurked here somewhere and Glory could have a connection to the guy.
As he’d suspected, Rob’s background turned up a history of minor possession charges plus a long-ago draft dodge. He’d lived in British Columbia until the forgiveness clauses kicked in, then made his way to Lyra and stayed. If he’d developed Phoenix’s skills on his own, in between marijuana harvests, Fox would be majorly surprised. Along with Glory, the local girl whose record showed her to be exactly what she seemed, Rob went onto the unlikely list.
Emily’s full check, though—that set off some bells.
Not that the information itself sent up any flags, but because it didn’t. No speeding tickets—unlike Glory, who’d apparently spent her years at University of Puget Sound setting new speed records—no credit bumps of any sort, no academic reprimands, which most people would be surprised to know really did show up on their permanent records. If only he could tease Glory about the streaking incident in her junior year.
No, Emily’s background was too clean.
She might as well be a robot and that didn’t match the passionate intelligence he suspected lurked under her prim exterior. Revising his estimates, he decided the cover she’d adopted might be far from amateurish. Someone had created this background for her, only making the mistake of crafting it too perfectly.
Most people wouldn’t look at it twice. The few who did, still wouldn’t find a crack.
But he would.
He liked this woman. More than wanting her body, he needed to know all about her. She’d tell him everything, in time.
In the meanwhile—hours still until three-forty-five—he’d put in some time on Phoenix. The programmer had been busy on the forums the night before. All night, by the time signatures. Dropping hints about a new Labyrinth module by Christmas. Fox left his own breadcrumbs, still trying to wrangle an invite to the private chats where Phoenix held court among a privileged few. One of his informants had provided transcripts that gave fascinating insight into Phoenix’s personality—and had been key in providing clues that led Fox to Lyra—but so far he’d been unable to get in himself.
A very tight community that protected their own.
He restrained himself until three-thirty, at which point Fox couldn’t contain his restlessness. Justifying his early arrival by running through some limbering exercises, he kept an eye in the direction of her house, willing her to show up. He knew he’d hit on the thing to tempt her the moment he suggested it in the squalid post office. No dinner dates with this one, but a good sweaty run. She’d done cross-country in high school and college, if that part of her paperwork jibed with reality, though without distinguishing herself with any major wins or records.
The lack of achievement in all her background niggled at him. Mediocre grades, average athletic skill, all the right social events but nothing special. And her painting—solidly craptastic. All of it fit how she presented herself, the schoolmarmish look, the self-effacing postures, but it didn’t play for him.
An elaborate disguise, all of it.
She might have everyone else fooled, but she had too much intensity to be that dull. Somewhere under the façade, she sizzled with passion. Why she tucked it away, except for brief glimpses, was the question. Not just an uncomfortable divorce, he thought. That might have been the trigger to send her here, but the roots went deeper. Maybe she’d been sexually molested or raped at some point, which would make seducing her even trickier. Although he’d bet that wasn’t it. Something, though, had scared her, way back, and she’d started hiding her real self then.
If he’d come on too strong and she’d gone to ground, he’d be kicking himself for the rest of the winter.
Three-fifty. Dammit. He’d have to develop another strategy to draw her out. Surely he couldn’t have lost the game already.
There she was, Anansi galloping gleefully ahead, beelining for him. Emily ran easily, gracefully behind, her slim profile dark against the silvery sea. Anansi blew past him, fortunately still considering him a friend, and circled around to escort his mistress. She drew up, her cheeks flushing pink in the cool air—nothing close to the embarrassed red at the post office—and looked him over. Cool and self-possessed again. But was that a crinkle of disappointment?
“I see you wised up and ditched the shorts.”
Idiot. Fox made a mental note to wear his jogging shorts as often as possible. Let his legs freeze. “I’m kind of overwarm, though. Want to come inside while I change?”
Her eyes flicked at the house—tempted?—and away again. “No, thanks. I’m for a run and then I want to get back to this painting I’m working on.”
“Light won’t be very good for it.” He fell into pace beside her, measuring her stride. If anything her legs were longer, though he might top her by an inch overall. A good reminder he needed to stay on his toes and work at this one.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to stop. I’m sure you know how it is, when the muse seizes you.” She tripped ever so slightly over the word “muse.” Said for his benefit. Thinking he might believe in that claptrap, even when she clearly didn’t.
“I’m flattered then.”
“Don’t be.” She gave him a sidelong look, full of that suspicion that only egged him on. “Anansi needed to get out. He was driving me crazy.”
The dog, who’d looped out through the shallows, now raced toward them at top speed, water spraying from his sleek body, demonstrating his excess energy. Emily laughed, a full, sensual sound that went straight to his groin.
With an odd pang of jealousy—over a dog, no less—he wished he’d been the one to make her laugh that way. Give it time, Sparky. Slow and steady wins this race.
“So, is that how you spend most of your time—painting?” They rounded the point and the wind off the water hit him in the face, cold and damp.
“When the muse inspires me,” she answered breezily, doing better with the word this time. “Or I read, watch TV, meditate. I’m pretty lazy, really. You’d be appalled.”
“You don’t work?”
“No. Money isn’t an issue. Thinking to do some gold-digging?”
Ouch. The woman did not hold back. Working at driving him away, judging by the determined set to her chin. He could deal with that. And, to get her attention, he picked up the pace. “I think I can hold my own. Just interested in knowing more about you.”
“Are we running or chatting?”
“We can do both. Unless you’re out of breath,” he added to needle her a little.
“I’m fine.” She upped the pace an edge over his.
Yeah, look at that competitive spirit. “What shows do you watch?”
“The Shopping Channel, mainly. Totally addicted.”
More lies. She pretended like she needed to watch the rocks, but she refused to meet his eye and pressed her lips together over the words in a telling way. Pretty much making stuff up as she went, moving her image from dull to vapid. Probably judging what she estimated attracted him to her and trying to counter it.
“What’s the last thing you bought?”
Slight pause. “Oh, I never buy anything. I just look.”
Yeah. He bet she’d never looked at the Shopping Channel in her life, but if he asked her again in a few hours, she’d be able to cite several items currently on sale. If he got past this conversation.
“So, what books do you read?”
“You looked though.”
“Tree did. Said they were all sci-fi type stories. Not my thing.”
“But you read Neil Gaiman—fantasy.” He called her bluff and raised.
“Gaiman based the book on an African and Caribbean god. Maybe that’s where I got the name.”
“Is it? You named your dog after a spider god?”
She didn’t reply immediately. Something there had penetrated. “Okay, you’re right. I was trying to spare your feelings. I just didn’t like your stories.”
He nearly laughed at her relentless poking at his male ego, at the way she tried to make it sound as if nothing about him was her thing. If he’d been a typical guy, he’d be feeling pretty damn deflated by now. Instead he entertained himself by cooking up a fantasy of her in dominatrix mode, making him crawl for her. He’d lay odds he could talk her into that scenario eventually. Probably more easily than getting her to kneel for him, though that image carried enough sizzle that he’d try for it.
Enjoying the fantasy, he let the silence spin out until they reached a rocky fall that extended into the water and effectively ended the beach. In mutual accord, they turned and headed back.
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said, as they approached the steps he’d climb to get to his house.
Point for you, Sparky. He kept his grin to himself. How much to play into this one? A lot depended on whether she really cared about those paintings. And if she knew how bad they were or if she’d really invested them with artistic hopefulness. Dangerous territory. Take the opening, he decided.
“It’s all right. A writer’s life can be tough that way. You learn to live with rejection.”
If he’d been able to, he would have held his breath, but he needed it to keep the pace she’d set. One she maintained effortlessly, to all appearances.
“Okay, now I feel like crap. I apologize.”
“You can make it up to me by having dinner with me.”
She huffed out a breath. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“No.” He let a measure of his determination infuse the word, testing her.
“Look.” She slowed to a walk, tightened her ponytail. Then stopped and turned to face him. “I’m flattered by the interest. Really. And I know I gave totally the wrong signals yesterday. I meant it, though, when I said I don’t date. It’s not you, it’s me—”
She cut herself off, looking appalled at her words, and he had to laugh. Her face flushed, bright flags of red on her cheekbones. He wanted nothing more than to yank her into his arms and kiss her breathless. Tucking his hands into his sweatshirt pockets, he reminded himself not to touch her. Not yet. No matter how much he itched to.
“I can’t believe you actually said that,” he teased her, enjoying the way she pressed the backs of her hands to her cheeks to check the heat there. Much closer to the real her now. Press the advantage or not? He followed instinct. “Why don’t you date, Emily?”
“It’s…a long story.” Truth there, but no doubt one she needed time to invent properly.
“I have nothing but time. Come over, sit by the fire. I’ll pour some wine and you can tell me the story.”
“I don’t notice you giving me your life history.” She sounded irritated. Cornered.
“You haven’t asked, have you? Ask me anything. Let’s get to know each other.”
“See!” She tightened her ponytail again. Her scalp had to be screaming from it. He wanted to see her with her hair down, all the dark silky strands flowing around her naked body.
Focus on what she’s saying, Sparky.
“That’s the thing. I don’t want to do that. You seem like a great guy, but I don’t want to get to know you. I don’t want to have long chats by the fire. I’m not…built for romance.”
“Okay,” he answered, keeping his voice even. “How about just fucking then?”
A tactical gambit. Despite the old saw—almost certainly an urban myth—about the guy who picked up women by asking them if they wanted to fuck because eventually one would say yes, it never really worked. In rare cases, however, with the right woman, it could be the right way to cut through tangled expectations. A deliberate shock and maybe a bit of illicit thrill. If she had already been thinking about it, and Fox would bet money she had.
She stared at him, knocked out of her argument, and he returned her gaze steadily. Come on, Emily. A hundred and eighty degrees from long chats by the fire. Her flush returning, she looked away, but not before he noted the heat filling her eyes and her tongue flicking out to lick her lips.
Oh, he had her.
“If you don’t date, then it’s been a while, I’m guessing,” he pointed out, very reasonably. “You have your reasons and I’m sure they’re good ones. But I’m only here for a short time, so you don’t have to worry about me wanting to move in with you and forcing you to have long conversations.”
She smiled a little, still looking out over the water, and he knew he had her attention. Reel her in, slow but sure.
“I like you, Emily. Everything I know so far has me riveted. I think you feel the attraction, too. You don’t want this to get personal? I’m willing to take what I can get. Let me take you to bed one time—a trial run.”
Her gray eyes lighter than the darkening sky came back to him, assessing. Definitely thinking about it. “A one-night stand—no strings attached?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“But you think I’ll want more.” Her voice had a throaty quality, going whiskey dark. She was killing him, the conversation making him hotter for her by the minute. So close he could taste her on his tongue already.
He clenched his hands inside the pockets and smiled to blow off some of his raging tension. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
Deliberately, a mocking tilt to her head, she stepped back and looked him over, head to toe. “You sound pretty confident.”
Goddamn, she was definitely flirting with him again. Sometimes he impressed even himself. “How about a small demonstration?” He didn’t have to make his voice sultry. Keeping it out of a growl was the challenge.
“I want to see your abs.” She met his eyes and smiled, clearly enjoying having taken him by surprise.
“Let me guess—Glory said something.”
Emily laughed, a light breath of the real one, but she looked pleased, eyes sparkling with humor and, if he didn’t mistake the mark, lust.
“Right here? On a public beach?”
“You offered.” She looked up and down the lonesome shore. “And I don’t think you need to worry about onlookers.”
“This is a first for me,” he pretended to grumble, instead immeasurably excited by her gambit. She could be the hottest lover he’d ever found, with her playfully passionate nature. His cock filled and he tried to master it by acting slightly hesitant, unzipping the sweatshirt and thinking about the cold air, surreptitiously watching her. Her gaze followed his hands with definite interest. Bless Glory and thank God for all those gym hours. Peeling open the sweatshirt, making it a strip tease for her without being too obvious, he fumbled at the hem of his T-shirt, faking shyness. Then lifted it up a scant few inches. “Okay?” He asked, looking over her shoulder and taking in her delicious reaction with his peripheral vision.
Because she wound her fingers together and—holy Christ—licked her lips again.
“More,” she ordered.
God help him, he went to a full cockstand, not comfortable in the tight jock strap, but hopefully it would keep her from noticing. Or, if she did, she’d take it the right way.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said and raised the shirt higher.