I just got the news that Unlawful Contact, the third book in the I-Team series, is a Daphne du Maurier finalist! I'm really thrilled about this because I love the characters and the story and am happy the judges did, too. Also, it means that I'm three for three with the I-Team series. I've only written three romantic suspense novels, and they've all been finalists in the Daphne's single-title category. Of course, it would be really cool if this one wins. Still, the competition is always top-notch, so it's great just being a finalist.
This reminds me that I've promised some of you a certain scene involving Marc, his memories of Sophie and his right hand prior to his escape from prison — if you know what I mean. (And I think you do.) I will get to it, but it has to wait until Gabe's story is written.
To celebrate, how about an excerpt? Hmm... Which scene? I can't remember which ones I've posted and which ones I haven't. But this is one of my favorites. I remember writing it and how long some of the emotional sequences took to get right. If you haven't read the book, there are probably spoilers here, but what the heck?
From Unlawful Contact:
“Easy, Sophie. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Sophie heard a man’s voice, felt hands move over her, tugging off her bra, unzipping her skirt, ripping off her panties. A spark of panic ignited in her belly, moved sluggishly to her brain. She tried to push the hands away, but couldn’t seem to move. “N-no!”
“That’s right, sweetheart. Get angry. I’d love nothing more right now than for you to wake up and hit me.”
But she couldn’t hit him. She couldn’t even open her eyes.
Then strong arms surrounded her, precious heat enfolding her, soothing her, chasing away her shivers. And she drifted.
Sometime later—she couldn’t say how much later—gentle fingers tested the pulse at her throat, pushed back the hair from her face, brushed over a sore spot on her cheek. Then she felt her head being lifted. A cup nudged her lips.
“Come on, sweetheart. Drink. That’s it.” The man’s voice was deep, comforting, somehow familiar.
Warmth slid down her throat to her stomach, spread through her belly and into her limbs, rousing her, driving the terrible cold away, bringing her slowly back to herself.
The crackling of a fire. The scent of wood smoke. The soft warmth of skin against skin. An arm around her waist. The steady thrum of a heartbeat.
She opened her eyes, found her face pressed into a bare chest.
A man’s bare chest.
Her heartbeat picked up as she tried to remember, her mind strangely fogged.
Had she met someone? Had she gone home with someone last night? Had she been so drunk that she’d forgotten? She’d never done that before—ever. That was Holly’s M.O.
But here she was. And here he was.
They lay as close together as a man and woman could without having sex, her head resting on the hard mound of his bicep, one of her legs tucked intimately between his, her breasts squashed against his ribcage. As close as she was, she couldn’t see much of him. But she could feel all of him—the coarse hair on his hard thighs, the prodding outline of his testicles and penis, the ripped muscles of his chest and abdomen.
She was in bed with Adonis, and she couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here.
She drew her head back to get a better view of him. The firelight revealed some kind of tattoo on his right arm, which lay possessively around her waist. She tried to make out what it was—an eagle?—but most of it was concealed by a dark band of duct tape and something that looked like—
Her memories flooded back, riding on a surge of fear.
It was him.
The man who’d held a gun to her head. The man who had kidnapped her. The man who’d… Oh, God! Had he raped her?
“No!” She pushed, kicked, tried to shove him away.
“Calm down, Soph—!” He gave a grunt, then a growl, then rolled her beneath him, the length of his naked body holding her motionless on the mattress, his hands pinning her arms above her head. “Oh, Christ!”
Some part of her registered the pain in his voice, but she was too afraid, too panicked, too damned angry to care. “Get off—!”
“Not till you promise to keep your knees away from my balls!” He groaned through gritted teeth. “Damn, woman, you’re hard on the manberries!”
It took a moment for him to catch his breath.
Then he raised his head and scowled down at her. “Listen to me, sprite! I’m sure this is confusing as hell, but it’s not what you think. Nothing violent or X-rated happened. You were hypothermic, and I spent the past few hours trying to keep you alive. We’re in a sleeping bag together to preserve body heat.”
But Sophie barely heard him.
Only one person had ever called her that.
She stared up at him, almost too stunned to breathe. But even as she tried to deny it, she knew it was true, recognition dawning in a bittersweet rush.
She drew in a shaky breath, then let it go. “Hunt?”
The scowl on his face softened to a frown. “So you don’t recognize me till I’m lying naked on top of you? I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Through the havoc of her feelings, she tried to explain. “Y-you called me ‘sprite.’”
His dark brows drew together. “I did?”
“Yeah.” The word came out a whisper.
For a moment, they lay there in silence, skin to skin, the weight of his body pressing down on her, their gazes locked. At an emotional edge, she forgot all the big things—like the fact he’d held a gun to her head—her mind catching only the details.
The rapid beat of his heart against hers. The rasp of his chest hair. The hard ridges of his abdomen against her belly. The heat of his skin. The strength of his grasp. The dark length of his lashes. The unreadable emotion in his eyes.
Slowly, he released her wrists, his hands shifting until they pressed palm to palm with hers, his gaze never leaving hers.
Somehow her fingers twined with his, locked.
Then he groaned—and kissed her.
It was a deep kiss, full and scorching, his lips pressing hot against hers, his tongue probing the recesses of her mouth with skilled strokes, his body moving against hers in a slow grind as if he were kissing her with every fiber of his being.
A bolt of heat ricocheted through her, unexpected and overwhelming, making her shudder. Unable to think, she arched against him, her tongue seeking his, her body driven by raw instinct. And for a moment she was lost in him—in the male feel of him, in the intensity of his kiss, in the erotic pressure of his erection against her hip.
Then she caught it—the coppery scent of blood.
Reality crashed in on her like an avalanche.
Drop the steel and back off, or I’ll blow her the fuck away!
She was kissing a cold-blooded killer, the man who’d held a loaded gun to her head, the man who’d almost gotten her killed.
In a heartbeat, the fire inside her became fury. She wrenched her head to the side, tried to twist away. “N-no! Stop!”
“God, Sophie!” He sounded breathless, his voice strained. “Jesus!”
He clamped a hand over her mouth, glared down at her. “Believe it or not, I didn’t mean for that to happen any more than you did! Now, I’m going to unzip the sleeping bag and get out, and you’re going to leave my nuts intact, got it?”
# # #
Her body trembling, Sophie pulled the sleeping bag tighter around her, struggling to come to grips with all that had happened and watching as Hunt, still naked as a Greek statue, fed his prison garb to the fire, one piece at a time.
Marc Hunter was Hunt.
Strange to think she’d never known his real name. She’d thought Hunt was his real name. She’d never heard anyone call him anything but Hunt, not even teachers. She hadn’t known he had a younger sister, either. So much for teenage intimacy.
She ought to have recognized him at the prison. True, he had a beard and much longer hair, and he was taller now, more muscular, his rangy frame filled out. But those green eyes, those lips, those high cheekbones were the same. In retrospect, it seemed so clear. Hadn’t she had a strange feeling about him? God, she felt stupid!
But then prison was the last place she’d expected to see him. All these years she’d imagined Hunt serving his time in the Army, going to college, and setting out for the stars, a wife and three kids at home. Instead, he’d been rotting in a prison cell.
The teenager who’d secretly wanted to be an astronaut—the young man who’d taken her virginity and given her the most romantic night of her life—had grown up to become a cold-blooded killer.
The pain of it cut through her like a razor, her anguish made sharper because he’d clearly known who she was from the beginning—and he’d put a loaded gun to her head anyway.
Drop the steel and back off, or I’ll blow her the fuck away!
She swallowed, forced down the rush of emotions that welled up in her chest, unwilling to let him see how much he’d hurt her.
And if he’d also saved her life?
She’d been unconscious for part of the time, but she remembered enough—hands tearing away her wet clothing; a voice urging her to wake up, to open her eyes, to drink; strong arms holding her close, enfolding her in warmth.
Easy, Sophie. I’m not going to hurt you.
Could an act of compassion make up for cruelty?
She didn’t know.
She raised a hand to her mouth, pressed her fingers against her tingling lips. Why had she let him kiss her like that? Why had she kissed him back? And how could his kiss have affected her so much after all he’d done?
It was shock, Alton.
Or nostalgia. Or exhaustion. Or adrenaline.
She came up with a quick list of excuses, none of which appeased her conscience. All she knew for certain was that she’d never felt anything like the surge of emotion that had taken her the moment she’d realized who he really was—relief and joy and grief and anger twined so tightly that she hadn’t been able to tell them apart.
At least she knew he wouldn’t rape or kill her.
He stood, watching the fire burn, his hair hanging between his shoulder blades, the muscles of his back narrowing to his waist, his butt tight and round. How’d he’d stayed in that kind of shape during six years in a nine-by-nine cell was beyond her. But there was no doubt in her mind how he’d managed to pull so many strings from behind bars. He positively exuded dominance. He gave off a vibe that said, quite distinctly, “Don’t fuck with me.”
But, clearly, someone had tried. A thick scar at least six inches long curved down the left side of his back. She didn’t have to be a doctor to know it had been made with a crude and vicious weapon and that he’d come close to being killed.
He bent down and reached for the stolen backpack, giving her a brief glimpse of the body part she’d supposedly abused, scattering her thoughts.
She looked quickly away, found herself gazing around a one-room cabin. Log walls. A pine table and chairs that matched the bed. A chest of drawers. Antlers above the fireplace. One shuttered window. One door, it’s lock broken, a chair tucked beneath the knob to keep it from swinging open. He must have kicked it in when he’d brought her indoors. Had he carried her inside? He must have. She had no memory of arriving here.
“If you’re thinking of running, you’d best think again.” His voice startled the silence. He turned toward her, still naked, and tore into what looked like a package of long underwear. “We’re miles from anywhere, and the snowpack is almost six feet deep. You’ll exhaust yourself post-holing and will probably be dead before you reach the main road.”
She forced herself to look at his face, not the heavy planes of his chest or the silver scar near the dark circle of his right nipple or the shifting tattoos on his biceps or his six-pack or the trail of dark hair that led to…
Her mouth went dry.
And he wasn’t even hard.
Something clenched deep in her belly to think that that had once been inside her.
She jerked her gaze back to his face, hoped he hadn’t noticed, and was relieved to see he was looking down at the long johns in his hands. She swallowed—hard. “I want my clothes.”
“Forget it. They’re soaked.” He stepped into the bottoms, pulled them up, tucking himself inside, the stretchy material seeming to accentuate, rather than hide, his penis. Then he ducked down and grabbed something else from the backpack. “But if you’re done staring at my crotch, you can put these on.”
Sophie felt her cheeks burn—and got a face full of long underwear.
Pink long underwear.
“Hope you like the color.” He turned his back to her, picked up a piece of firewood, and dropped it onto the blaze. “Got it on sale.”