"I dare you..."
Riley Kendrick has officially lost her nerve. Since being robbed last year, her spontaneous side—the fun side—has been completely MIA. That is, until her new neighbor moves in. Jack Reed, aka Mr. Apartment 4B, is over six feet of hard, sculpted hotness with a dimpled smile...one that suggests that maybe it's time for Riley to get in touch with her once-naughty self.
Now the dares have begun. What started in an elevator has quickly escalated to a game of sexy challenges, each more daring than the last. It's exciting, it's wicked, and as far as Jack's concerned, it's a safe, no-strings fling. But every game has its limits...and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous a dare can get!
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Tanya Michaels is an award-winning author of over forty romances, a six-time RITA nominee and the mom of two highly imaginative kids. Alas, Tanya's hobbies of reading, oil-painting and cooking keep her much too busy to iron clothes. She and her husband are living out their slightly wrinkled happily-ever-after in Atlanta, but you can always find Tanya on Twitter, where she chats with followers about books, family and TV shows ranging from Outlander to iZombie.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The October rain brought with it a nauseating déjà vu, resurrecting thoughts of another autumn night Riley Kendrick would rather forget. Worse, the soggy weather ensured that the parking spots closest to her apartment building had already been taken.
Peering through the windshield at the dark expanse of asphalt, Riley desperately wished the two lights standing sentinel over the parking lot were brighter. Although residents had to punch in a code to raise a mechanical arm—management's way of making sure the public didn't use the lot for free parking—it would be easy enough to duck under the blockade or hop over the short hedges on either side. Anyone could be lurking in the dark, a thought that kept her rooted to her seat.
Get out of the car, paranoid woman.
Maybe she should have stayed home tonight. She was coming up on the one-year anniversary of The Incident, and her nightmares had returned. Lack of sleep was making her jumpy. She wished she were in her apartment now, on the other side of two dead bolts and the security bar. But her youngest sister, a cocktail waitress who had Wednesdays off, had taunted her about being a workaholic shut-in, goading her until Riley took the bait. It was almost as if she'd been her old self, the boisterous Kendrick sibling who'd never been able to resist a challenge or turn down a dare.
Okay, then. I double-dog dare you to get your ass out of this car.
She hefted her purse onto her shoulder and clutched her keys, keeping her fingers wrapped around the canister of pepper spray that dangled from the chain. Not bothering with the umbrella that was somewhere in the backseat, she locked her car and hurried across the parking lot. After The Incident, she'd wanted desperately not to feel like a victim. She'd taken self-defense classes, bought pepper spray. She even owned a Taser, though it seemed unwise to deploy an electric weapon in the rain.
It wasn't in her nature to be a scaredy-cat, but being held at gunpoint in one's own home left scars. Maybe it would be different if the bastard who'd robbed her had ever been caught, but knowing he was out there somewhere...
When she woke from bad dreams, it was with his gravelly, two-pack-a-day snarl echoing in her head. Don't turn around, Blondie. You move from this spot, I'll kill you dead. Hell, I might come back and do it anyway.
She'd been facing the wall, praying that his painful grip in her long hair was the only way he hurt her. Two days later she'd gone to a salon and had her hair shorn in a funky, bold cut. Within the month, she'd put her house on the market. She'd hoped a change in environment, to an apartment where there were potential witnesses and people to hear a cry for help, would allow her to regain her psychological footing. But—
Boom. A crack of thunder split the night. In her head, it reverberated like a gunshot. Panic welled, fightor-flight overtaking logic. Despite the slick pavement and puddled potholes that awaited her in the dark, she broke into a run, trying to suck in more air even as her lungs tightened. The entrance defied logic, seeming to get even farther away.
Just as the door was almost in reach, a man rounded the corner of the building. A choked scream burbled in her throat. Her arm shot upward, trembling fingers locked around the pepper spray.
"Whoa!" He rocked back, raising both his hands—either in an I-come-in-peace gesture or to help shield his face in case she dispensed the spray. Between his protective body language and his Atlanta Falcons hoodie, it was difficult to tell much about his features. "I didn't mean to startle you. I was just coming back from the Dumpster." He spoke slowly, his words measured and low, as if he had practice dealing with women on the verge of hysteria. "Name's Jack Reed. I live here."
Impossible. "I know everyone who lives in the building." Though she'd never admit it aloud, she'd also memorized the makes, models and license plates of all the residents' cars. In total, there were twelve apartments, and only one of those was vac—
"What about the guy who signed a lease on 4-B last week?" His tone held a note of gentle humor. "About yea tall? I hear he's a good-looking devil, but he inherited dimples that aren't very manly."
4-B! 4-B, as in the apartment across the hall from hers? Crap. She hadn't seen signs of anyone moving in, but then, she'd taken to working all night and sleeping while the sun was up because the dreams weren't so bad during the daylight. Plus, with traffic, dinner and a movie, she'd been gone almost five hours. For all she knew, she'd missed this guy carrying an entire living room suite up the stairs.
He looked strong enough to move furniture, towering over her at about six feet, with broad shoulders and big hands. With the hood shielding his face from the rain, she couldn't tell if he truly possessed dimples, but there was nothing unmanly about his appearance.
"Ma'am, I don't want to make any sudden movements, but shouldn't we both get inside where it's dry?" He shoved his hood back, and she got her first clear look at him. His jawline and cheekbones were strikingly well defined, his hair and his eyes dark as sin. "Jack Reed," he repeated in that same soothing drawl. "I can show you my ID and a business card if it would help."
Her stomach churned. She'd wanted to feel strong and capable of defending herself, but now she just felt stupid. What a shame she had two months left on her lease—moving suddenly seemed like a splendid idea. "Of course we can go inside."
She gestured for him to proceed, keeping a safe distance between them instead of turning her back on him to unlock the door. The fact that he had a key supported his story that he was a tenant. She planned to see whether he went for the stairwell or the elevator before making her own decision. On the one hand, now that she was crashing from a temporary adrenaline surge, her legs felt too shaky for the stairs. But she didn't want to confine herself in an enclosed elevator with him.
Nor did she want to run into him again after this fiasco of a first impression. What were the odds she could permanently avoid someone who lived directly across from her?
She swallowed. "So...you moved in today?"
"Enough of my stuff that I can sleep here," he said. "I'm bribing some police buddies with pizza and beer to help with the rest this weekend."
"Police? I almost maced a cop??"
"Forensic artist, technically. Don't feel bad about the pepper spray—no harm done. Besides, it was refreshing." His lips quirked in a slow grin that, under different circumstances, would raise a woman's temperature and lower her inhibitions. "My last building had a tenant board that welcomed new occupants with a muffin basket. Total cliché. The attempted assault with intent to blind was a nice change of pace."
His kindness only heightened her mortification. The old Riley would have met his playful teasing with some of her own. But at the moment, she couldn't summon a sense of humor about assault. "I have to go." Abandoning her plan to wait and see which direction he went, she bolted for the staircase.
Her feet had already cleared the first step when he called after her, "I didn't catch your name?"
She didn't slow down to offer it. Why bother telling others who she was when, lately, she didn't even know the answer to that herself?
Leaning against the wall just inside his front door, Jack Reed used the tail of his T-shirt to twist the cap off his beer. Tony Lang, head of the auto-theft task force and the only one remaining of three men who'd helped Jack today, drank his beer on the sofa. The couch was probably more comfortable than the wall, but after hours of hauling furniture up stairs, Jack lacked the energy to navigate his way through the jumble of boxes. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, regional corn mazes were a popular form of recreation; maybe instead of unpacking, he should just charge admittance to the cardboard labyrinth.
Tony surveyed the progress they'd made with a grunt. "Remind me again why you didn't ask Spence Evans to help us? That guy looks like he can bench press cars. He would have saved us some trips."
"I barely know Spence." Jack was friends with half the police department, but as a rule he avoided the K-9 unit. "Besides, I figured with you, me, Gardoza and Burke, we had it covered."
"Warning for the future, this is the last time I help you move during monsoon season."
"Technically, I don't think Atlanta has a monsoon season." It had been raining all week, though, and Jack was sick of it. Outside thunder rumbled, warning that this afternoon's drizzle was building to a real storm. "But I don't plan on relocating again anytime soon." Moving had been a big enough pain that he almost wished he'd renewed his lease at the former apartment complex. He'd wanted a change of pace, though, not to mention the extra distance between himself and his increasingly erratic ex.
"Does it seem awfully convenient to you that Gardoza had barely shown up when his wife called with supposed labor pains?" Tony grumbled. "At least Burke made it a few hours before bailing."
"You can have their share of the beer. Come back tomorrow to help me unpack, I'll even spring for your favorite Scotch."
"No dice. You know Sunday dinner with my family is mandatory. I could get shot on duty and Ma would still expect me to show. Which reminds me."
"Oh, hell. That's your I-need-a-favor face."
"Hey, you asked me to sacrifice a Saturday afternoon, and I'm hoping you'll reciprocate."
"Are you planning a move I don't know about?"
"Nah. My sister's kid turns twelve the first Saturday in November. It's my niece's first birthday since the divorce, and Anita is trying to put together a big party on a budget. So we made a list of our most talented friends we could coerce into working for free. Any chance you'll come do caricatures of the guests? Funny sketches these middle school kids can hang in their lockers? They'll love it."
Jack, an only child raised by a single mother, always had difficulty wrapping his head around Tony's large family gatherings. "A Saturday afternoon surrounded by middle school kids? You owe me a bottle of Scotch."
"Then you'll do it?"
How could he say no after Tony's help today? Smothering a groan, he nodded.
Tony saluted him with his beer bottle. "Knew I could count on you. Just promise me one thing—try not to smile at my sister. Or make eye contact with her. Or stand too close to her. Anita's still vulnerable after that snake ex-husband broke her heart, and you know how you are."
"How I am?" What the hell was that supposed to mean?
"Women love you. It's why every department wants you to talk to the female witnesses. Ladies access details they don't even realize they saw just to impress you."
"Oh, please." Jack was uncomfortable with his friend's assessment. "Women do not instantly and universally love me. Exhibit A... Celeste. You do remember the crazy woman who drove me out of my last home?" She'd lived on the first floor of his building. After the breakup, which had been far more dramatic than he'd expected, she'd taken to stalking him in the lobby, in the laundry room and in the resident gym.
"She loved you plenty. Which is why she went bonkers when you dumped her."
And that, in a nutshell, was Jack's problem with the mass delusion of "love." People wielded the emotional excuse like a weapon, using love to justify bad behavior, desperate decisions and even heinous crimes.
"I'll come to your niece's party, but you should probably go before I change my—" Jack tilted his head, trying to better discern the sounds on the other side of the wall. Was the mysterious blonde in 4-C leaving the sanctuary of her apartment? As far as he could tell, she hadn't poked her head outside since their encounter Wednesday night.
He'd been hoping to run into her again, to replace their first meeting with a less startling impression. As a sketch artist, Jack dealt with witnesses for a living. He'd seen his share of fearful, shell-shocked expressions—but not directed at him. It had disturbed him to know he was the cause of the raw emotions in her stricken gaze. He reasoned that she'd only been afraid because it had been dark and the rain had masked the sound of his footsteps, causing him to unintentionally sneak up on her. All he needed to rectify the situation was a brief, friendly exchange in the nonthreatening light of day.
"Hang on, Tony." Jack cracked his door open and glanced down the hall.
His shapely new neighbor was shifting a box at her hip so that she had a free hand to press the elevator button. This was a perfect opportunity. Jack set down his beer and grabbed the nearest empty pizza box and a few other pieces of debris within easy reach. "Back in a sec!"
By the time he headed down the hallway, she was already in the elevator. The doors were starting to close, but Jack had long legs. He threw his arm between the sliding metal, and the doors obligingly rebounded.
He beamed at her. "Hello again."
In return, she muttered a sharp expletive. Apparently, this particular female had missed the memo about how all women adored him. Her clear blue eyes narrowed for a moment, but then she ducked her gaze. Too bad. She had beautiful eyes. Beautiful everything. If anyone had asked his preference before now, he probably would have said he liked women with long hair. But his neighbor's super-short style suited her. It gave her an edgy appearance while still highlighting delicate, feminine features.
And you 're staring. Not the best way to convince her he wasn't some creepy parking-lot lurker.
"Sorry if my friends and I made a lot of noise with the furniture today," he said as the elevator doors slid shut. "I'm mostly moved in, so it should be quiet from now on—although, I have been known to throw the occasional Halloween bash. As my neighbor, you would be invited, of course."
She didn't respond for a moment, and he wondered if she planned to ignore him for the entire descent. That would make for a paradoxically long four stories down.
But then she raised her head, glancing in his general direction while not quite meeting his eyes. "There's actually a building-wide party, but I don't—" The overhead lights flickered once, twice, before going out completely as the elevator dropped a few feet, then jerked to an abrupt halt.
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