Table of Contents
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2008 by Beth Kery.
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BERKLEY SENSATION and the “B” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Berkley Sensation trade paperback edition / December 2008
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wicked burn / Beth Kery.—Berkley Sensation trade pbk. ed.
eISBN : 978-1-440-64372-9
1. Apartment dwellers—Fiction. 2. Neighbors—Fiction. I. Title.
I must thank my husband, for supporting me even during my annoying, angst-ridden moments. No one told me that taking up writing would make me occasionally act like an adolescent all over again. Thanks to Lacey and Mary W. for looking over the manuscript and giving me tips when I was banging my head against the wall. And of course I would like to express my appreciation to my agent, Laura, and editor, Leis, for their taking the chance on my writing.
The goddamned walls in his temporary apartment residence might as well be made of cardboard, Vic Savian thought as he came into full wakefulness at the low, mellow sound of a voice emanating from the hallway. He’d never actually heard the mystery woman who lived across the hall from him speak, but he recognized her immediately, nonetheless.
Weird. Just her voice made his cock stir and stiffen against the cool sheets.
He’d seen her twice now, once in Louie’s—the steakhouse located in the lobby of Riverview Towers. The other time they’d been alone on the elevator together.
He’d have bet the finest stallion in his stable that she was as aware of him on that elevator ride as he was of her.
Sort of an understatement, actually, to say that Vic had been
of her. He’d noticed everything about her . . . the light sprinkling of freckles on her nose, the movement of her lips when they closed and parted, the pulse at her elegant throat, the shape of her breasts beneath the conservative yet sensual silk blouse that she wore.
She was beautiful. Vic knew better than most how overused that word was when it came to women. But other descriptors—pretty, attractive, sexy—fell far short when it came to the woman across the hall.
She was luminous.
He liked women. He liked them smart, feisty, sexy, skilled, and hot. But this woman’s beauty irked him. He steered clear of beautiful women. Ever since the debacle with Jenny.
His head came up off the pillow when he heard her speak again. Did her voice sound strained?
When he heard a man respond in an angry tone, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his jeans.
“Evan, I’ve made it very clear where I stand with you. I’ve never played coy. And no, I can’t give you some kind of timeline as to when I might feel differently,” she said before Evan had the chance to say the predictable.
What was it about getting dressed up for a black-tie affair that made a man think he was going to get laid?
Niall Chandler wondered dispiritedly. God, she was an idiot. She should never have agreed to accompany him to the Chicago Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art fund-raiser tonight. As a member of the museum’s board of trustees, Evan Forrester had the potential to make her job very difficult if he chose to play the part of a rejected lover.
“You’re not even giving this a chance. Look, I don’t have any of the details, but I’d have to be an idiot not to know that I’m supposed to treat you like fine china, given all the vague references and dirty looks your boss is always giving me, not to mention that secretary of yours. But sometimes the only way to get over something is to just take the plunge. Come on, Niall . . . jump off that pedestal of ice, sweetheart,” he coaxed. “The weather down below is nice and hot.”
Niall’s eyes widened in disbelief not only at his knowing, almost sly tone but the fact that he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her back, sandwiching her between the door and his body. She twisted her face away when he tried to kiss her, but he merely transferred his attentions to her neck.
“You were driving me crazy tonight in this dress,” he muttered against her skin. His hands began to press and slide along her back and waist.
“Evan, stop it,” Niall insisted. When he brushed aside her wrap and planted a kiss on the top of her right breast, her hand rose instinctively. He looked up when she gave him a hard, flat-palmed thump to the side of his head.
“Why . . . you little bitch, that hurt!”
Niall barely had time to register the tall shadow out of the corner of her eye before Evan cried out and winced in pain. He crashed loudly into the far wall of the hallway, then bounced forward, looking stunned and dazed. He grabbed frantically for his ear, as if to assure himself that it was still attached to his head. Niall realized that the man who stood with them in the hallway must have twisted it viciously before he threw Evan off of her.
“Get out of here,” the stranger said tersely.
Niall stared up at the man in amazement. His tone had been one of annoyance and profound distaste, as if he’d just come out into the hallway and seen a dog humping her leg instead of a man pawing her body without her consent. It was especially striking, that tone, since Evan was the picture of urbane sophistication in his tuxedo and black cashmere overcoat.
Her savior, on the other hand, brought to mind comparisons to ruthless cowboy outlaws and primitive, raw sex.
Niall blinked in surprise at her turn of thought. Well, it wasn’t the first time her mind had strayed that way against her will. It had done the same on the other two occasions she’d seen the man who lived across the hall from her, especially when she’d been forced to breathe his spicy male scent in the six-by-six-foot confines of an elevator.
He made her nervous, agitated . . . stirred up.
At least on the elevator he’d been wearing clothing, though. Tonight he wore nothing but a partially fastened pair of faded jeans that looked like they’d been washed and worn so many times that they’d shaped themselves perfectly to his lean hips, tight butt, and long, hard thighs.
Niall forced her eyes away from that compelling sight when she heard Evan speak.
“Who the hell are
to think you can tell me to leave like that?” Evan sputtered in furious disbelief. He took several rapid steps down the hallway, however, almost tripping on his own feet, when Niall’s neighbor abruptly lunged toward him. The tall man never responded verbally, but Niall thought she saw Evan’s answer in his rigid profile and steely gaze.
He’s the guy who looks like he’s ready to kick your ass from here to next week if you don’t get a move on
, Niall thought.
“You’d better just go, Evan,” she managed shakily. “Please,” she added when Evan opened his mouth like he was going to argue. He finally turned, keeping the grim, tall figure that menaced him in the corner of his eye until the last second before he headed down the hallway.
Niall exhaled unevenly when she heard the ding of the elevator door as it closed. She found it difficult to meet her neighbor’s stare.
“Thank you,” she said.
His voice reminded her of a stark landscape of open plains domed with the vast mystery of a starlit sky.
“Sure.” She laughed a little unevenly. “Feeling a bit dense, actually. I didn’t see it coming.”
“How about a drink?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m all right. He just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
“I wasn’t asking if you wanted to have a drink with me in order to calm you down.”
Her eyes snapped up to his. For the first time, she saw that they were a light gray, the outer rim edged by a defining black line.
A second passed . . . then several. A tiny smile pulled at his well-shaped lips, softening the hardness of his mouth infinitesimally.
Had he really just propositioned her so casually? Niall questioned herself. And was she really considering taking him up on the offer?
Something flamed to life inside of her as she met his steady stare . . . something Niall had assumed had been snuffed out of existence three years ago. His lips twitched slightly, and she realized she’d been wrong.
What she experienced at that moment wasn’t anything she’d ever known in her thirty-three years of life on this planet.
“All right,” she agreed softly.
He stepped back so that she could move past him toward the door of his apartment. Niall noticed that he didn’t look smug at her acceptance.
Nor did he seem even vaguely surprised.
Niall smiled a moment later as she glanced around his living room while he moved about in the kitchen.
“I see we have the same decorator,” she said through the little window over the counter that overlooked the kitchen. She heard the anxious tremor in her voice and admonished herself for it. Just because she had agreed to have a drink didn’t mean that she was going to sleep with him—a complete stranger.
His dark brown hair fell over his brow as he bent to retrieve a bottle from a lower shelf. When he stood, her gaze brushed appreciatively across his ridged abdomen, the sweep of his wide shoulders, and the hard, defined muscles of his upper arm. Most of the men that she knew would have put on a shirt in this situation. But Niall was glad that he hadn’t.