Courtney DeLollis huddled in the corner of the grandly appointed reception tent, peering through the leaves of a giant ficus, hoping the foliage would shield her from sight. If she played her cards right, maybe she’d get through the evening in the background, present and accounted for, but not having to engage with anyone. And by anyone, she meant—
“The sleek puma sits back on her haunches, waiting for her prey to stop sniffing the air, all the while scouring the group for the weakest link.”
The low male voice in her ear made her tense until it was followed by a chuckle she knew well. She resisted the urge to slump with relief and turned to face Galen Thomas.
“Hey there, handsome. You guys looked great out there,” she said.
Wasn’t that the truth. Galen and his wife of less than two hours, Lacey, both looked gorgeous. The groom in his gray tux, his bride in her white dress with a blue sash. On a beautiful summer evening by the lake under a pristine white canopy surrounded by family and friends, their first dance had been pure magic. Someday, a long time from now, Courtney was going to find a man who looked at her the way they looked at each other.
Yep. A verrrry long time from now.
“You look pretty great yourself,” Galen said and motioned to her dress. Even while he said it, though, he was scanning the canopied area for his bride. “Too nice to be hiding behind the potted plants. My wife has been trying to find you.”
Shit. She’d hoped to fly under the radar. “Well, here I am,” she said, waggling her fingers jazz-style. At his deadpan stare, she dropped her arms back to her side. “Fine. I’ll be right out. I had to escape your Uncle Milton.” Not the truth, but believable enough. The man was a talker. “He was yapping my ear off. It’s fine now, though. He seems to have located the bar.”
Galen laughed and nodded. “Okay, but don’t go wandering off again. Lacey’s worried because you don’t know that many people here. You know how she gets. Plus the bridal party needs to be on call for pictures and then the throwing of the bouquet.”
“Sure thing,” she reassured him brightly. His astute gaze held hers for a beat too long, and he seemed ready to question her further but a female voice called to him.
“Did you find her?”
“She’s right here,” he yelled back to his wife, moving his hulking form to the side to offer visual confirmation. Lacey waved, and the tall man standing next to her followed suit.
Courtney’s mouth went dry and a shiver ran through her. Six feet or better of lean muscle, he looked like he could have led the Trojans into battle if he had to. She had gotten to see him in his uniform a few months back when they’d all gone out for drinks to celebrate his commendation after he helped rescue a little girl lost in the woods. In his police blues, he was pure fantasy. In the tux, he gave James Bond a run for his money.
He leveled her with a mocking smile, as if he knew full well she was avoiding him, and she barely resisted the urge to flip him the bird. God, did he bring out the brat in her.
Besides, it wasn’t like she was hiding from him, so much. She just wasn’t in the mood to lock horns with him today, and staying out of sight was more foolproof than relying on her self-discipline. It seemed like whenever they were around each other, they got into some sort of beef that left her irritated, frustrated and way too aware of her body.
Apparently, he either didn’t feel the same way or enjoyed the sensation, because he dipped his head to say something to Lacey and then made his way purposefully toward Courtney’s foliage camouflage, long legs eating up the dance floor between them.
Talk about your puma. His focus was laser-like, and it took all her strength to stand her ground. So what. He was going to come over, break her balls, they’d do their little verbal sparring, and then he’d walk away. This wouldn’t be the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. She needed to get better at managing him, was all. She loved her new group of friends, and he was part of the package, so the sooner she learned to deal with him, the better.
Straightening her shoulders, she tipped her head up to face him as Galen moved off to meet up with his wife.
“Hello, Courtney.” Rafe’s silky voice held a laugh right beneath the surface that had every muscle in her body tensing. She tried to calm the pounding of her heart as she offered a fake smile.
“Hey, Rafe.” That’s it, Court. Keep it casual-like. Only those eyes, black as pitch, sexy as sin, seemed to see right through her, and her smile wavered. Say something else. “What can I do for you?” As soon as the words slipped from her lips, she wished for them back. Why did everything she said around him come off like it was sexual?
His already-hot gaze went hotter and he made a soft snicking sound with his mouth. Chills broke out over her as he leaned in closer. Instinctively, she backed up, until the still-sun-warmed metal of the canopy post pressed against her spine.
“I think you know me better than to ask a question like that,” he said softly.
The thing was, she didn’t. Not really. They’d hung out as a group a lot, but the two of them had been like oil and vinegar. They’d mingle for a short while when forced, but that was about it. Something about him put her perpetually on edge. She’d managed to keep her wary distance until the night of Lacey’s bachelorette party, when she’d found out he was some sort of bedroom dom. Which, while none of her business, hadn’t been far from her thoughts ever since.
Her mistake had been calling him on it.
She pushed back the thought and took a sip of her wine to gather her wits before responding. “That’s charming. Someone asks a simple question and you automatically make it into some BDSM thing. Why don’t you scope the room for someone to handcuff to something?” she asked. “I’m a little busy right now.”
He glanced down at the ficus she was clinging to with her free hand and shrugged. “Your date looks like a real bore. I’m just trying to liven things up a little. And for the record, I didn’t mention anything about BDSM. You know, for someone who thinks it’s abusive, you sure do bring it up a lot.”
Only because he goaded her into it. After you goaded him first, her subconscious added helpfully. Okay, so maybe calling it “abusive” had been a stretch, but she’d been desperate. Willing to say anything at that point if it helped her throw up a roadblock between them before she did something stupid. What she hadn’t realized was that he’d view her little red herring as bait. In her attempt to keep distance between them, she’d unwittingly opened Pandora’s box and had no clue how to close it again.
Better to stay on the defensive until this thing ran its course or he got bored of messing with her. “Don’t act like the victim here, Detective.” She straightened, set her glass on a nearby side table, and laid a hand on his rock-hard chest to push him back a step. “You might be used to intimidating witnesses on the job, but I’m not a perp and I’m sure as hell not your sub. You’ve been yanking my chain about this for two weeks and I’m about sick of it.”
“See, there you go again, talking about yanking and chains. It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?” He covered the hand she hadn’t realized was still on his chest—gripping a handful of tuxedo—and squeezed. “It’s okay to admit you’re curious. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but if you give me ten minutes, I promise you’ll walk away with a very satisfied—”
She released him and slapped her hands over her ears with a squeal. “Oh my God, you’re seriously the most crass, rude, unbearable—”
In spite of her muffled hearing, there was no mistaking his laughter. He tugged at her wrists, devilment dancing in his eyes. “I was going to say ‘smile on your face.’ God, woman, what did you think I was going to say?”
Her cheeks burned, and she jerked her arms away from his grasp. “Nothing. Forget it.”
This was why she couldn’t be around him. He was too smooth for her, and as much as his cockiness irritated her, she also couldn’t deny the lure. The naughty pull low in her belly that made her want to run and lean closer at the same time. When had she last felt that way about a man?
But after her relationship with Wes, a guy like Rafe was the worst possible kind to wrestle with. Her ex had obliterated her confidence, taken over her life, and controlled her like a marionette, and she’d let it happen. Until she could learn to trust herself again, she sure as hell couldn’t trust someone else. And when she did decide to get out there on the dating scene? It would be with a nice, mellow guy who let her call the shots. A tough-as-nails cop by day and bedroom dom by night was exactly what the doctor hadn’t ordered.
Even as her gut seconded that notion, her thoughts went reeling back to the first time Rafe had offered her ten minutes of his undivided attention. The exchange was as fresh in her mind as if it had happened yesterday.
There he’d been, large as life, in the middle of the bar taking up way more than his fair share of the room, looking confident, sexy, and in control. She didn’t know what happened. It was like the words had tumbled out of her.