Saturday, September 20, 2008

Daringly Delicious by Leigh Ellwood

“Ugh!”

Baking sheets and metals bowls clattered a disjointed tune as Tish slammed her baking supplies around the kitchen. Could she have been any more like a giggling virgin schoolgirl in front of Vinnie? What must he think of her mooning expression and less-than-seductive nature?

She set a Calphalon pot to boil and retrieved an indented block of bittersweet chocolate from her pantry. Breaking tiny triangles into a glass of bowl, she dared a peek out of the window over the sink. Vinnie already had the back of the car jacked and the lug nuts removed from the faulty tire with that X-shaped wrench—hell if Tish knew what the thing was actually called. Auto repair was not her forte.

But oh, outside of baking, she would definitely choose man-watching as her favorite activity, and she did enjoy spying on this sexy one-man pit crew. Even with the distance, she could detect Vinnie’s back muscles rippling underneath the white of his t-shirt, and his tanned biceps flexed and relaxed with little effort as he worked the tire off its axle.

Crud. At this rate he’d be finished, leaving her with little time to work up the nerve to fake a voluptuous persona and invite him in for a cool glass of lemonade to quench his thirst.

“If I had lemonade,” she then muttered, realizing her refrigerator contained only diet colas for consumption. Vinnie didn’t seem the type for that.

She stripped away a large patch of cling wrap from its roll and tightened it around the glass bowl before setting the whole thing on the bubbling pot. Next she poured a measured amount of whipping cream in a smaller pot to boil on the adjacent flat burner. Once it reached a bubbling point, she would whisk in white chocolate to create what would become the truffle center. The melted dark chocolate, shiny and sweet in its consistency, would serve as a delicious outer shell.

A knock at the door interrupted her concentration and sent Tish’s heart pounding. She checked the window—the car remained, limp tire in place, with its caretaker out of sight. That could only mean…

Shit! Quickly washing her hands, she fisted a damp towel and rushed to the door. No time to worry about hair or makeup or clothes. Like Vinnie cared, anyway. This was likely a courtesy ring to let her know he’d be leaving her now. Never to return.

“Hello—” She paused at the doorjamb, expecting to see Vinnie jangling Lupe’s keys before her in a casual farewell. Instead her senses knocked backward and she grasped the door for support at the sight of the gorgeous mechanic—shirtless and smiling, his dark eyes glistening with hunger. Thick nipples stood to attention against a smooth chest planed with hard muscle, ridged and curved in all the right places.

“Hey,” he said. “What smells so good in there?”

* * * *

He had a pack of industrial strength hand wipes in his back pocket, kept for just such events. They could have sufficed to clean him up, and get the car back to the limo garage without messing up Lupe’s car too much. He didn’t need to ask Tish for permission to wash before leaving, but damned if he’d let another day pass without expressing his interest in her in some way. Begging the use of her bathroom seemed a legitimate icebreaker—he’d scrub his hands raw with whatever designer soap she probably used until he worked up the courage to ask her out.

But the sweet aroma of chocolate wafting out from within her home struck his senses and brought back memories of her delicious handiwork. He couldn’t help but ask.

“Huh?” Tish seemed glazed, distracted. Maybe this was a good sign—removing his shirt, while not necessary for the job, had been an impromptu move for attention. “Y-yes,” she said quickly. “I’m making a batch of truffles for Dareville Primary. Fundraiser. Uh, did you want something?” No mistaking the hope in that tone. Vinnie smiled.

“I kinda wanted to wash up,” he began, relieved when no further explanation seemed required. Tish ushered him into the foyer and pointed out the half-bath to the side.

“Everything you need is in there,” she called, backing into the kitchen on what Vinnie noticed were shaking legs.

Nice. She felt something, too. Perhaps this would go easier than expected if she met him halfway.

Rinsed and dried, he thought to remove the white t-shirt from his other back pocket and redress, then decided against it. That might signal his readiness to leave, and he wouldn’t do that without securing at least a date for coffee. Besides, her reaction on seeing him half-naked was too obvious to miss. Best to use all his strengths in catching the tempting Tish.

“You there?” he asked cautiously into the deserted foyer, then followed the rich scent of chocolate into the kitchen, where Tish held vigil over a fancy stove. She looked up at him without a break in her stirring and smiled.

“All set?” she asked. She seemed more relaxed than earlier. Clearly in her milieu she had control.

Vinnie leaned against the doorway, folding his arms. “Yep. Car’s fixed, but I’m in no hurry to get back. How are the truffles coming along?”

“Filling’s almost done.” Tish turned back to the stove and removed a small pot to a metal trivet on the counter. “I’m thinking now I might split this batch and make some of them my signature key lime flavor.”

“Nice. How do you do that?”

Tish winked. “Nice try. A good cook doesn’t reveal her secret recipes.”

“Aw,” Vinnie teased. “Can’t at least spill one or two of those eleven herbs and spices?”

“Not a granule. Sorry.”

“Fair enough.” He eyed the wooden butcher’s block in the middle of the kitchen, wondering at how much weight it could hold.

And inspiration struck. “Could I have a taste?”

Wedding Crashers by Sage Burnett

Nathan Walker couldn’t shake the bad feeling.

Instinct warned him that something wasn’t right. Frank and Teddy, Lucas Becker’s bodyguards, had cold shouldered him the entire evening. Nate hadn’t been able to talk with the groom, because Lucas was continually surrounded by friends and Alison, his new bride, clinging to him like sweat on a damp tee shirt.

He needed to get a read on Lucas.

It had been three weeks since the last time he’d played golf with Becker. Nate drank more of the expensive champagne in an attempt to drown the uneasiness churning inside his guts. He couldn’t have been made. If Lucas had discovered his true identity, he would be floating head first in the Flathead River.

The delicate crystal champagne flute hovered near Nate's lips as he watched a woman with long platinum blonde hair drag a high-backed chair near the long table. A four tiered wedding cake with all the pomp and circumstance of royalty graced the center of the table. Hiking up the tight burgundy dress over her shapely thighs she climbed onto it, while struggling to keep her balance in high heels. A powerful feeling of déjà vu swept through him when he saw the woman’s dark almond colored eyes.

Raising her bare arms high above her head she dove, in a cockeyed kind of graceless swam dive on top of the large wedding cake. Unfortunately her landing morphed into a belly flop. The cake, decorated with dozens of delicate pink flowers imploded under her and onto the table. Nate’s lips curled up into a grin.

The large room filled with guests instantly hushed.

“Hey, what the hell?” A man hollered from the end of the table.

Nate cocked his head in the direction of Lucas dressed in an expensive black tux. The loud piercing scream he heard next must have come from the bride, Alison. She rushed toward her groom, nearly stumbling in the skin tight satin wedding gown.

Swallowing a large sip of champagne, Nate switched his attention back to the wedding cake crasher. The platinum blonde raised her head in triumph, and stared directly at him.

Damn. No way. That couldn’t be her, but Nate had known deep in his gut that was in fact her. As recognition spread across her face, her tawny colored brows puckered together in a frown.

Frank and Teddy instantly sprang into action, coming out of nowhere. One on each side of her, the beefy guards lifted her off the flattened cake. Kicking and protesting, she attempted to break free of the two sets of large hands.

At lightning speed Nate circled the table. “Put the lady down. It was an accident.” No, it wasn’t an accident. It was a deliberate attempt to do bodily harm to the wedding cake.

“An accident, my ass,” Frank said. His suspicious expression said he didn’t believe that for a minute. “She did it on purpose to ruin the boss’ wedding, Walker.”

“He’s right, Nathan.” Callie Alexander lifted her chin smudged with pink icing.

Franks’ pale blonde eyebrows shot skyward? “You know her?”

Before Nate could answer Lucas stepped between his guards, separating Callie from them. “Dammit Callie, I didn’t take you for the revenge type.”

“Let go of me, you no good cheating bastard.”

Callie had been involved with Becker? Not his Callie. Nate downed the remainder of the champagne in one big jealous gulp.

“Get her out of here,” Lucas ordered Frank and Teddy.

“Who is that woman?” Alison peeked over Lucas’ shoulder.

Callie swung her head in the bride’s direction. “I’m the woman he was sleeping with when he took up with you, Mrs. Becker.”

“What, what?” Alison thumped Lucas between the shoulder blades. “You told me you’d taken a vow of chastity this past year after your divorce.” Alison sucked down champagne like a thirsty camel in the desert before lowering the flute. “Then you slept with him over a year ago, so that doesn’t count.”

Callie jutted a hip out. “Sorry, five months ago does not make a year.”

“Five months?” Alison’s voice rose to a hysterical pitch. “Five months ago?” Lucas and I have been together for six.”

“Tsk, tsk.” Callie gave Lucas a look of pure contempt.

The bride tossed her champagne flute onto the rubble of cake and pounded the groom’s back with her fists while she shouted out a string of four letter words that would make a trucker proud.

Lucas, seemingly oblivious to Alison pounding the crap out of him, looked over at Nate. He switched on his poker face, not daring to look away from Becker’s angry and suspicious glare. Damn right the man was pissed. His ex-girlfriend had just torpedoed the fancy wedding cake, while his new bride threatened to turn his back into a lovely color combination of black and blue.

Still trying to shake off the feeling he’d been made and concerned for Callie’s safety, Nate elbowed Frank smack in the rib cage. A loud grunt blew out of Frank’s mouth. Before Teddy could react, Nate grabbed Callie’s hand. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Wait a minute.” Indignation threaded her words. “You have no right.”

Nate kicked over the table sending the demolished wedding cake to its final resting place on the thick Berber carpet.

“Move it, Callie.” Dragging her behind him, Nate wove his way through the throng of stunned and horrified wedding guests.

If Lucas really did know his true identity he was in deep shit.

There was no way in hell he could have left Callie standing there with white wedding cake smeared all over her dress and body since he knew Becker’s dirty game.

“I can’t run in my heels.”

He didn’t bother looking down. “Kick them off.”

“Are you kidding? These shoes were not cheap.”

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the two of them had a decent lead. They were about twenty feet away from the front entrance of Becker’s oversized and gaudy house. Nate stopped, and wheeled around to face her. “Kick them off and hurry.”

Callie shook her head, tossing the platinum hair about her face.

“Damn,” he muttered as he bent down and lifted one foot, yanking off the burgundy heel.

When he wrapped his hand around her other ankle, his blood raced. Pushing aside memories of the feel of her, Nate removed the other shoe.

“Well, I never.”

Nate straightened up, holding the heels in one hand. “We need to get the hell out of here.” He caught her hand again and shouldered open the large pine wood door.

Now that Callie had better footing they increased their lead. Looking behind him he saw Frank and Teddy lumbering to catch up. He and Callie burst through the opened door into the hot, muggy August night. Threatening and murky thunder clouds loomed overhead.

The cars were parked at crazy angles instead of neat rows. He’d left his own SUV near the county road, pointed straight at it for a quick getaway if necessary. Good thing, he’d listened to his instincts.

“Nate, all I did was ruin the cake,” Callie said in a breathless voice. “I don’t understand why you’re dragging me behind you like some sort of caveman. I mean if I have to, I’ll pay for it. Not that I really want to do that. The bastard deserved it.”

“This isn’t about the cake.”

“Then what–“

”Later. Here’s my truck.” When they reached his truck, Nate dumped the heels on top of it, before digging the keys out of his pants pocket and unlocked the door. “Get in and fast.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Callie, there’s no time. Just get in.”

She leveled a scrutinizing look on him before sliding in, wedding cake dripping off the front of her curvy body.

Trying to close the door, she blocked it with her elbow. “My shoes.”

“Yeah, right.” Nate slammed the door, snatched the heels and jogged around the front of the truck.

Once inside he jammed the gearshift into first and gunned the engine. As he peeled down the long, winding driveway he looked in the rearview mirror. Frank pointed a semi-auto handgun at his truck. And here he thought Frank and him were buddies. So much for courting the big, dumb guy. Nate reached for Callie, forcing her toward the floor. “Get down.”

“Lordy, you certainly turned into the drama king sometime over the past ten years.”

The crack of gunfire could be heard behind them.

Callie peeked over at him, shock etched across her delicate features. “They’re shooting at us?”

“Will you please just stay down?” When he reached the paved county road, he took the turn on two wheels before straightening the truck out. “You can sit up now, but keep an eye out behind you.”

Callie straightened, shifting slightly in her seat to stare at him. “For God’s sake, will you please fill me in here? ‘Cause I gotta say, I’m lost.”

Nate noticed for the first time that her long blonde hair was slightly askew. “Is that a wig?” Since he’d never forgotten the shine of her rich brown hair or how the silky strands had felt skimming across his bare chest he certainly hoped so.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“If it is, it’s crooked.”

“Oh, hell.” Callie tore off the wig. “It’s too damn hot anyway.”

From the corner of his eye Nate watched as she raked her fingers through her now shoulder length hair. Callie’s hair used to cascade to the middle of her back, but he had to admit the shorter bouncy style was still sexy. Clearing his throat, he focused on the windy, rural road.

“Um...what about my car?”

Good question. “Why were you wearing a wig?”

“So I could get into the wedding. You don’t think I was on Lucas’ gold plated wedding list, do you?”

“Ah, no.” His eye caught the reflection of a black Ford Taurus in the mirror approaching at a high speed. Pressing down on the accelerator Nate had to work hard to keep his concentration on the road and not on Callie.

“Fancy meeting you at Lucas’s wedding.” Sarcasm coated her words. “How do you know him?”

Refusing to look at her, he kept one eye on the road and the other on the rearview. “Golf.”

“Golf? Oh, you have got to be kidding me. What happened to the downhill skier and mountain man?”

“I still do those things.” The only reason he’d taken up the boring sport of golf was to get close to Becker.

Callie opened the glove compartment and ruffled through it. “Do you have a cell on you?”

“Why do you want one?”

She glanced over her shoulder.“. “Why do you think? To call the cops.”

“We don’t need the cops.”

“That’s right, you’re a cop. At least, last I heard you were a highway patrol officer over in Billings. It appears you’re a long way from your job.”

“I transferred to Kalispell a year ago.”

“And you just couldn’t find the time to call me.”

Callie’s sarcasm sliced through him like an extra sharp knife. “I figured you were married with a couple of kids by now.”

“Standard generic answer from an ex-boyfriend.”

Once again her sarcasm hit its mark. “Hold on.” Nate executed an abrupt right turn onto a secondary gravel road.

“I’m really not into four wheeling. I’ve had a rough day. Diving onto a wedding cake isn’t as easy as it looks.”

The Dodge truck jostled and bounced over the narrow road dotted with potholes. Now he wished he would have had new shocks installed. Instead, he’d been too busy chasing after Becker while off duty. Nate had practically begged his captain to assign him to Becker, but Captain Tim Johnson had outright refused him, telling Nate there was a conflict of interest. Nate had managed to one up the undercover officer, Jason Parrish, assigned to Becker, by getting an invite to Becker’s wedding. Using some fancy foot work he’d been able to keep out of Jason’s way.

Callie looked over her shoulder again. “Can’t you just stop and arrest the guy that’s following us?” she asked in an exasperated voice.

“Sorry, no can do.”

Nate eased up on the gas when a large whitetail buck wandered across the road up ahead. “Come on, move it.” He startled the animal off the road and into the pine trees and thick brush that lined it by tapping the horn twice.

“You better fill me in and fast, Nathan Walker, on what exactly is going on here.”

“Later.”

“I’m not being brushed off this time.”

A heavy dose of guilt weighed hard against his chest.

“Maybe you could leave me a note.”

Shit, Callie’s sarcastic remarks hit him hard and fast like the target of a firing squad.

“We’ll talk later.”

“You mean in the next decade?”

He deserved every jab, dig, and scathing remark she threw at him. “I need to concentrate on driving.”

“You do that.”

A silence riddled with unanswered questions and heavy tension sat between them.

She hadn’t changed a bit physically. Those small breasts and shapely ass had kept him in a constant state of sexual agitation all those years ago. And still could because he had a mother of a hard-on underneath his trousers.

The potholes littering the road grew in size and frequency which in turn caused the Taurus to rapidly lose ground behind them. If Frank and Teddy had used their brains, they would have pursued Callie and him in a four wheel drive not a car meant for highway driving. Damn good thing, Becker hired on brawn, not brains.

Nate punched the gas again, hoping to increase their lead.

Callie kept looking over her shoulder. “I’ll give them points for persistence. I mean really. All this over a flattened wedding cake.”

Nate held his tongue. There was a hell of lot more at stake here that Callie didn’t know about. “That cake must have cost a bundle.”

“My friend knows the baker who made it. Very expensive.”

Nate tilted his head and caught the devilish smile playing across her face, which eased some of the tension from his body, but the sexual tension made his already achy cock, ache more. He forced his attention back to the road because he needed to keep control of the truck and his chaotic emotions.

Never in a million years could he have imagined seeing Callie again, particularly on a stakeout.

She’d slept with Lucas Becker. Why in the hell had she been involved with a man like Becker in the first damn place? Since he had left her high and dry a decade ago, Callie had the right to sleep with anyone she wanted, but it didn’t mean he had to like it.

By all rights he had no claims on her.

Scowling, Nate checked the rearview again. The Taurus was nowhere to be seen. Didn’t mean Becker’s hit men weren’t still in hot pursuit.

Nate slowed when he spotted a road veering off toward the river. If necessary they could cross it. The sedan would be shit out of luck on that one. It was a short cruise to the river. Nate shifted down into four low and nosed the truck down the bank.

“You really do want to lose Teddy and Frank,” Callie said. “I always figured they were harmless. More for show than anything else.”

Nate felt her eyes boring down on him, but he applied himself to navigating the truck across the river. Good thing, this was a shallow part. The water barely lapped at the top of the tires.

“You’re ignoring me.”

Nate gassed the engine as they approached the opposite bank. “No, I’m not. I’m concentrating.”

The tires dug in and churned dirt as the truck climbed the bank before hitting level ground again. He spotted a narrow road with deep ruts that other four wheel trucks had made over the years.

“Stop.”

“We need to keep going, Callie.”

“I’d really like to clean this sticky cake off of me. Besides, the Taurus can’t cross the river and you know it.”

“Too chancy. There’s probably a creek up ahead.”

“Maybe, maybe not. You’re not the one with cake and icing plastered all over your body.”

Nate slanted his eyes in her direction “It has a certain amount of panache to it.”

Callie snorted. “Yeah right. My plan was to destroy the cake, say my peace then get the hell out of there. I even brought a change of clothes with me.”

“Hmmm.....methodical planning on your part.” The image of Callie and Becker twined together didn’t sit well with him. Hell, it downright pissed him off. “Why Becker?”

“Why not Becker?” She tossed back at him. “I found him charming.”

Sleazy kind of charming. “And then he broke your heart?” It sounded to him, like Callie might still be in love with the son of a bitch. That thought appalled him.

“God, no. He didn’t break my heart. He ticked me off for lying to me. He was seeing me on the side while making wedding plans with Alison. Talk about a lowlife.”

“Yeah, he’s a lowlife alright.”

“I thought he was your friend.”

“A...yeah...he is or was. I can’t respect a man who cheats with other women.”

“I don’t think that’s the only reason you think he’s a lowlife.”

Nate felt Callie’s gaze on him again. He didn’t look at her as he maneuvered the truck down the road. Sprawling fir branches scraped at the sides of his truck as he drove. So what if he might need a new paint job?

Callie pointed up ahead. “Oh, cool. There is a creek.”

“We’re going straight through it.”

He heard the seat belt unsnap. When Nate looked over at her, he saw her fingers wrap around the door handle. “Come on Callie, no jumping out.”

“I’d hardly call it jumping. You’re probably going all of two miles an hour.”

The Taurus couldn’t cross the river, but Frank and Teddy could on foot.

“Sooner or later we have to turn back, unless you’re equipped with camping gear and a change of clothes for me.”

Okay, so she had him on that one. Nate reached over and took her arm when the passenger door opened. Her soft skin did things to him. “We need to keep going.”

“You drive across the creek and I’ll wash up. I’ll meet you on the other side.”

Grinding his teeth together, he studied the creek. It was about half the width of the river and didn’t look too deep. “No.”

“Let go of my arm or stop the truck. Either way, I’m getting out and cleaning up.”

“Dammit.” Nate hit the brakes. “Make it quick.”

Callie was already out the door before she paused and looked back at him. She raised her hand in a salute.

“Shit.” Ten years later she was even more tempting. His dick just wouldn’t give up the fight. Nate watched her carefully make her way to the edge of the creek on bare feet.

He let the truck idle, and reached under the seat for the .9mm semi auto Glock, before he climbed out. His eyes fixated on Callie when she waded into the water, but his ears strained to hear any unusual noises. Sounds that didn’t belong in the forest, like a gunshot bee lining toward his head.

Wading out to her knees, she bent over and splashed water on the front of her dress. That damn sweet ass muddied his brain. He forced his gaze in the direction they had just come. Expecting to see Becker’s men jogging down the road, he loosened his tie and yanked it off. Nate laid the gun on the top of the truck and peeled off the tux jacket before he tossed the tie and jacked into the back seat.

“Do you always pack?”

Callie’s voice startled him. He wheeled around to face her. The already snug dress clung even more tightly to her body because of the water she'd splashed on it. Her nipples were hardened peaks under the dress, while the wet fabric emphasized her pubic mound.

Christ, now he had to protect Callie and himself, dodge two gun toting bodyguards and deal with an aching hard-on. Nate snatched the gun and held it at his side. “Let’s get moving.”

“Of course, you would carry a gun if you were on duty, but you were at a wedding. Care to fill me in.”

“You ask too many questions.”

When Callie moved close to him it was extremely hard to keep his eyes off that dress clinging to her so provocatively. “Like I said before, we need to get moving.”

“I want to know why you’re running from Lucas Becker.”

“Technically speaking we’re running from his bodyguards, not Becker himself.”

Callie rolled her eyes. “Same difference.”

Too much precious time had slipped by while he let Callie clean up. Wrapping his hand around her arm, he steered her around the front of the truck.

“I won’t be put off that easily, Nate. In fact,” she stopped and dug her bare feet into the ground. “I’m heading back. Maybe I can catch a ride with Frank and Teddy.”

He frowned at her. “Real funny.”

Callie lifted her chin. “It wasn’t meant to be funny. I’m dead serious.”

His back teeth crunched together as impatience wound through his system. “Please don’t be stubborn. We need to get moving.” He gave her his sexy look, the look that always seemed to reel women in.

When Callie’s brows furrowed together and her eyes filled with irritation Nate figured he might be losing his touch. “We’re wasting time.”

Callie’s response was to plant a hand on her shapely hip. “You’re wasting time, not me.”

Nate dropped his hand from her arm, tucked his gun into the back of the tux trousers before scooping her up into his arms.

Rekindling the Spark by Nicole Gestalt

“One moment, I’m coming.” Angela shouted as she fumbled through her handbag for the door key. It was a habit her husband hated and she didn’t quite understand it herself, but every time she opened the door rather than leaving the keys nearby they went into her handbag, resulting in endless searches when someone came to the door.

Finally, she found the key and opened the door. Stood behind it was a tall muscular lad, whom Angela guessed could be no older than twenty-five. He had on dark green trousers that seemed rather loose fitting and a t-shirt of the same colour. His dark black hair was shoulder length but swept back and his eyes seemed to glow with mischief and good humour. There was something about the way he smiled at her that made Angela go weak at the knees.

“Hi, I’m Richard, your husband called me earlier about your garden.” His voice was soft but held strength in it that caused Angela to be compelled to listen intently.

“Oh, yes. Matthew said someone would come.” Angela put out her hand and Richard took it, squeezing it gently but firmly and running a calloused thumb over her knuckles. Angela felt her face heat up in a blush, and blinking she looked down at her feet. Once she had regained her composure she looked back up into his hazel eyes.

“Now I bet Matthew forgot to let you know what needs doing. Hang on a moment, I’ll just get some shoes on and then I’ll show you around the garden.”

Leaving the door open Angela moved back down the hallway and slipped on a pair of shoes. She straightened up, and for the briefest moment she thought she saw Richard staring at her but when she turned to face him he was looking away.

Leading him out of the house she showed him their small front garden and then took him through the side gate into the garden that she spent most of her time in. Years of careful pruning and planting had created a small haven filled with a multitude of colours and scents. By the glass conservatory doors a small fountain trickled away and bird song twittered from the various trees. Angela smiled with pride when she saw admiration in Richard’s face. Matthew didn’t understand her love of the garden so she was happy at last to see someone enjoy all the hard work and love she had put into it.

“It’s the trees you see, they need cutting back badly but I’m not able to do that myself so I persuaded Matthew to call someone in. Do you think you’ll be able to manage them?” Angela pointed to three trees at the end of the garden that were badly overgrown and obviously in need of a trim.

Richard walked up to them and placed his hands on each trunk in turn. Angela stood transfixed, as he almost seemed to be talking to them, and after a short time he turned back to look at her.

“They all seem healthy enough so it shouldn’t be too much of a jolt to them. It will take a couple of days to get the job done completely though. Is that okay?”

“Yes, that’s fine thank you. Then there’s some pruning and mowing that I’ve not been able to get around to doing, would you be able to manage that?” Angela found herself almost looking forward to having Richard around for the extra time it would take.

“Yes, that’s not a problem, I’ll just go and get my tools from the car then I’ll get started.” With a smile Richard walked back to the front of the house where his car sat, leaving Angela alone in the garden.

* * * *

Pulling the equipment he’d need out from the car and slipping on his tool belt Richard thought about Angela. She obviously kept herself in shape; her body was toned yet had the maturity and life experience that he found so alluring. She had taken his breath away when she had opened the door, and he had found it extremely hard not to stare longingly at her, especially when she had bent down to slip on her shoes.

As he placed the gardening tools into his belt Richard considered the task ahead. The trees were healthy enough, and although he hated the thought of cutting them back he was glad it was him doing it and not someone who didn’t know what they were doing. He finished getting himself organised and locked the car. As he did so the hairs on the back of his neck rose and he got the distinct feeling that someone was watching him. He discreetly looked behind him and saw Angela looking at him out of a downstairs window. Smiling, he walked to the back garden, enjoying the fragrances of the flowers as he stepped through the gate. Richard loved the garden, and of all the gardens he had visited and worked in he was truly awed by Angela’s. He knew from the conversations he had with Angela’s husband that she was the gardener, and from the look of it she had spend a lot of time working in it.

Without hesitation Richard started work on the trees, aware that he was still being watched.

Battery Drain by Don Luis de la Cosa

Morning reaches out and pulls me from the restless sleep that exhaustion has forced over me. Harsh sunlight filters through the grates in the metal floor that serves as a ceiling to the basement I’ve called home for the past few days. Daytime’s the worst. All the input between the daylight from upstairs and the stark white lab coats is too much for my optics, though, several of the techs habitually wear tight skirts as if they’ve forgotten I’m down here or simply don’t care. I’ve seen enough Victoria’s Secret while sitting here in the semi-darkness to rival their website. Maybe they do care. Outside, I can hear the activity on the docks: the boats loading and unloading, workers shifting around shipments, and seagulls, lots of them. Must be fish. The subway rumbles past, five hundred yards away in an underground tunnel, and a wayward rat gets toasted when he brushes the third rail. I flip through the several different visual scans my new optics permit, just to pass the time. In one, heat signatures and temperature walk across my field of vision. In another, distances and center of mass targeting scrolls across on a tech’s white lace thong in liquid red lettering. All the sensory input can sometimes send me into a hypnotic overload, and I close my eyes to concentrate on trying to control the waves of information my awakening senses are receiving.

The pain in my limbs has lessened in the past few days to the point where I can carefully move around the small basement without fainting. I feel as if gravity has suddenly became an arbitrary concept, or perhaps increased so much that it’s made moving around exceedingly difficult. I reach out to steady myself against the wall and my arm snaps up with a speed that continues to amaze me. My body seems almost foreign, with reactions and perceptions I previously thought only possible in the purely digital realm. That was all fine with me, as long as they made sure to include my tongue in the list of organs they had mechanized.

Simple surgery to augment my capabilities was the common sense way to ensure that I survived what I’d been hired on to deal with. My last ‘job’ as a deck jockey hadn’t really required much physical exertion, except for carrying flat panels and cables to connect everything. Hell, even sex was virtual at this point. I had, in fact, managed to accomplish one of my infiltrations by seducing the security guard who, as she should have been, was jacked in when I showed up. Other times, more often than not actually, the data I would pilfer was buried under several sublevels of virtual security. Hacking has never been a completely safe profession, but in today’s market, the risks were heavier than ever before, defense mechanisms could just as easily result in mild frustration as neural disintegration. A few narrow escapes from the latter convinced me of the need to change professions before something unpleasant happened.

Over the years, I had made a number of contacts involving my line of work, others who ride the edge of life to survive. I figured searching out a few old faces might help me rethink my options. My searching finally ended in a small bar hidden in a dirty corner of the city. Of course now, most corners of the city were pretty dirty.

She sat alone in a corner booth, silently observing the activities of the other patrons, mood lighting enhancing the sharpness of her jawline, shadowing her already shadowy mahogany brown hair, and accenting the cleavage her far too flirty outfit revealed. With a subtle nod of her head, she offered me the open seat opposite her. Cautiously, I crossed the room and slid onto the vacant bench.

Turns out she’s looking for a samurai, a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard, to help her in her latest endeavor. I told her the story about my last brush with security at that company in England, and my inherent distaste for the field. She affected disinterest, and with a wave of her hand, dismissed my concerns.

“You’re better at it than the people trying to keep you out, Alex. The last time we worked together, you really didn’t even need me, your security measures were so tight. Hell, it took them three weeks to even realize they’d been compromised.”

She did have a point. But what were the risks? And were there any benefits?

“In any sort of encounter, there are three distinct possibilities: one, you lose, two, you win, and three, it’s a draw, and neither of you ends up on top. So, yes, there are risks. Of course, we’re going to give you every tool in the book to make sure that you win and fight dirtier than anyone else in the game.”

This was getting very serious, very fast. She sensed my apprehension and told me about the money involved. It was a tidy sum, and my bank account could definitely use the extra padding, but, why me? Why not somebody else?

“I already told you, you’re the best. You are one even if you haven’t yet realized it. Inside you is a spirit with a purpose. I’ve seen it. Your capabilities are so much more suited to this than sitting behind a console.” I listened to her words and silently thought about their meaning. I had never before thought to become one of the enhanced muscle that provide the physical support for a large scale attack on a corporation’s assets. I was always tucked away from the front lines behind miles of optic computer cables, writing myself checks for the immense collections of half cents that get lost in companies’ accounting. The tone of her voice, the look in her eyes and the warmth of her face all combined to finalize my decision. However, she wasn’t going to get me easy.

“So, tell me why I should accept your money when I can pull that down in a weekend without having to risk my neck in the process.”

“Because it’s in you, Alex. You might be happy doing what you’re doing for small change and stacking chips from shady deals, but at some point, you’re going to have to let it out.” She stared me in the eye for a long dramatic pause, just long enough to hypnotize even the deadest of poker faces, and then dropped a bomb in my lap. “And you get me as part of the deal.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“I don’t lie, Alex.” And with that, she rose from the table, knowing that I would follow her, and glided across the floor to behind a velvet curtain. The shadows in that section of the bar made the pockmarked wall look even less sturdy than it should, but, I followed her knowing that she was right when she said she didn’t lie. Behind the red crushed velvet curtain was a couch draped with the same material, and one solitary light, dimmer than the one at the table jutting from the exposed surface of the exterior wall. I thanked my lucky stars that she was wearing rubber when she sat on that couch, no doubt countless years of DNA had been spilled on its surface, and it certainly didn’t look like someone cleaned back here all that frequently. But then, that was part of the charm of this place.

She pulled me closer to her and started kissing my zipper, her hands grabbing me from behind as her lips slid and her tongue played across the enclosure. I had, since our very first encounter years ago, been dreaming about this, and to finally find it going on was almost enough to have me come right then and there. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of missing out on this experience for the world. She undid the hooks on my leather pants, the buckles at the waist similarly ceding to her expertise. She had me exposed faster than I could have protested if I was inclined to, and slowly began to lick my shaft from base to tip, wrapping her lips around the member along the way, and tickling the tip before swallowing the whole thing like a hungry beast. She pumped me in and out of her mouth, grabbing my hips and pulling me toward her. Her tongue did things to me that there were probably illegal in several states and I came in burning jets that went straight down her throat, grabbing for any handholds I could reach in order to keep myself from collapsing onto the floor.

She sucked the last drops from me and wiped the edges of her mouth. I tried like hell to make sense of what had just happened, and then, realizing there wasn’t an explanation, simply allowed the wave of pleasure to wash over me before I buttoned myself back up. She stayed on the couch until I finished putting myself together, and then rose, a hairsbreadth away from me. I could still smell the sex on her lips.

Just before she left the alcove, she spoke in a half whisper, saying, “Think about it, won’t you?”

Damn! Every time we get together, she rocks my world! I watched her disappear into the crowd and out the door before following the same path. On the way home in the transport, I sat in a daze wondering if I was making the right decision. I fell into my bed and didn’t wake up until late in the day, though I suffered through a recurrent dream about battles fought and mortal wounds. When I woke, I commed Morgan and let her know that I would join the team, what else could I do? She let me know that arrangements had already been made for the procedures, and she would be by in half an hour to personally escort me to the location. I quickly stuffed everything I thought I would need for a fast recovery into a bag: cyberdeck, HK Phoenix automatic pistol (just in case), and a couple fresh changes of clothes. The chime at the front door made me jump. Was I completely insane, or was this just another business opportunity? I answered the door to find Morgan standing there, dressed skimpily, but not unclassy, with the same soft glow in her eyes that I had noticed at the bar. She asked if I was ready to go and I replied that I was, shouldering my bag. We left the building and walked out to the subway to cross the city.

On the way to the clinic, she told me more about the work to be done after my recovery. I’ve never heard anyone describe storming a fortress as being ‘easy’ before, but she somehow convinced me that it would be. Armed recon drones, wall-mounted cannons just to take care of those types who wanted to emulate Spiderman, windows made of the same material that commercial interstellar flights used in their windscreens – practically impenetrable stuff. Once inside, a laser latticework filled the hallways to detect the slightest amount of movement, and the mainframe we needed to get to was guarded by a quad-phase electric containment unit that only one person had the code for.

Yet, she assured me that all of this was not really the issue.

“The mainframe we have to get into is a new liquid state model. We’ve had some of the best people working on this for the better part of a year, but haven’t been able to crack it.”

“So, how do you think having me there to keep all the bad guys off your ass will remedy the situation?”

“Because I’ll actually be going along just to carry all the artillery.”

“And who’s going to do all the work?”

Morgan simply smiled at me, the left side of her mouth curling up and her eyebrows lowering to give her a sinister appearance. That sneer only served to remind me of what else she’d done with those lips the night before, and suddenly, my pants were far too tight. Her higher than mid-thigh dress barely covered her, and as we traveled further toward the edge of the city, nearing the docks, the subway car became increasingly empty. Once I’d become excited, every time I looked at her face, I felt those lips caressing my stiffness. After two more stops, we were completely alone, and her discourse had become a low hum in the background, fading in and out of the train’s own throaty whine.

“Alex, have you been listening?”

“I’m sorry Morgan, it’s just that, well, I was thinking about….”

She recognized my intent before I was able to complete my sentence. She’d been watching my erection grow just as much as I’d been dreaming about her lips. Never once frowning at my forwardness, nor hesitating for an instant, she approached me from where she stood, fingers suggestively curled around and sliding along the floor to ceiling pole. She leaned over slowly, making sure I saw straight down the top of her garment, and kissed me passionately, her mouth eager, hungry, her tongue just as surprisingly deft as it had been last night. Then, she undid my pants with an expertise equal to that of the last time. She found my hardness pulsing to her touch, and, turning, she reached for the bottom of her skirt, slid it above her hips, revealing her nakedness and inching toward my face with her ass. I could smell her already wet, a spicy sweetness to which I was immediately addicted. I grabbed her hips, brought her to my face, and caressed her delicate lips with my own tongue, drinking the honey that dripped from between them. When I released her, she straddled me, and I noticed a large tattooed design across her waistline in the separation peeking out from under the material. Grabbing my shaft, she slid down onto me, damn near burning me she was so hot. We were far from the city’s center and the only other stop this train made was at the docks, a good twenty minutes away, plenty of time to accomplish our mission. Once she was comfortable on top of me, she started gyrating and bucking her hips, the trains vibrations and constant rocking from side to side adding to the experience. We weren’t in that position long before I found myself almost ready to explode. Wanting to prolong this as much as possible, I grabbed her around the waist, stood up, and using the handrails for stability, continued in this new position, screaming, sweating, straining, feeling the rush of fluids begin and suddenly, inadvertently, my gaze fell upon the bold design tattooed on her back, some ancient god whose significance was entirely lost on me. Its image was terrifying: an enormous fanged snake’s head on a scaly human body with a similarly terrifying skirt of serpents. The image impacted me so much that I came fast and hard, stumbling backward and thankfully falling into a chair. Morgan rushed over to me, with both hands on my knees to steady herself, and sucked the last few drops out of me, rocking gently with the train, the smell of sex permeating the air. Again those lips, she was fast converting me into a devotee, and I wasn’t quite sure just how to reconcile my feelings. We hurriedly got dressed as we were approaching the station, gathered our things and stood by the door.

Once at the shipyards, it was a short walk to the warehouse that contained the clinic we were looking for. A man wearing a white lab coat met us at the door and ushered us inside. The interior of the clinic was a stark change from the outer warehouse façade. Offices with open doors lined a short hallway that ended in a large metal door labeled “Personnel Only”. My escort’s deft fingers played across a fingerprint scanning keypad, gaining us access through the metal door, opening onto a large trailer dominating the open space. I was told this trailer was the operating room and on the far side were the accommodations where I would be recovering. A rather small attendant crossed the open distance, taking my coat and bag, telling me they would be in my room after the procedure. As the attendant walked away, Morgan told me she would be leaving to complete some arrangements. I watched her retrace the path we had just walked and then I turned to the man in the white lab coat to see what was next.

He told me he was a technician and would be assisting in the implants after I had been checked out by the medical team. Basic stuff: signal boosters to speed response time, multi-scan optics, channel amplifiers to improve aural capabilities, and rapidly multiplying nanotechnology would be injected into the bloodstream to bond with and augment the existing neural network in order to handle the excess of information and the signal boosters’ higher range of output. Nothing I hadn’t heard of before, but certainly nothing I had ever expected to be going through myself. We walked toward the surgical trailer and I looked at the opaque windows lining the sides. Reaching the door, the technician opened it and led me into a rather large examining room. I sat on an empty table and tried to get comfortable as another man in a white coat strode into the room. The second man walked over to me and introduced himself as the head surgeon for my operation. He professionally explained the procedures he would be using, and the schedule for recovery, while checking my pulse, listening to my breathing, and testing my reflexes. After these items were finished, the doctor told me I would be put under for the examination and surgery, explaining it was easier to gather their data if I was unconscious. I pressed him on this point, challenging that he might simply want to put me under so he could transport me for one of the companies I’d hacked.

“Of course someone in your position might consider that. However, what I’m talking about is slicing through skin and muscle to the major nerves running through your body, then attaching pulse meters at both ends in order to test transmission rates. Local anesthesia won’t work at those depths, and if you so much as twitch during the operation, you run the risk of either damaging or severing the nerve completely and incapacitating that side of your body. Of course, we could regrow the nerve, but, the blood typing, stem cell generation, growth time, installation, and rehabilitation would conservatively take two years, during which time no one would even remotely consider the possibility of allowing you on an interstellar transport if, for some unforeseen reason, you should need to leave town on ‘business’. Or you could just agree to be put under general anesthetic.”

“I see your point, Doc. So, when do we get started?”

“Follow Althea, there, and get showered. Use the scrubber to clean everything. I hate dirty patients.”