Read Wicked & Willing: Bad Girls Online

Authors: Leslie Kelly

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Wicked & Willing: Bad Girls

BOOK: Wicked & Willing: Bad Girls
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“You want me. You can’t hide it,” Troy said smoothly

“Your lips are pursed, as if you’re thinking of being kissed. Of kissing back,” he continued. “Of using your mouth for something other than talking….”

“Pursed lips can also be a sign of attitude,” Venus countered weakly.

He nodded. “Oh, honey, there’s no question you’ve got miles of attitude. But it’s not your attitude at work when your lips are full and ripe and parted like that. It’s another part of Venus altogether.”

Yeah. The empty, aching part that needed to be filled by him
. She closed her eyes, desperately trying to relax.

“Even your legs are shaky,” he teased, running his fingers along her thigh.

Her eyes flew open. “I didn’t think touching was part of this demonstration,” Venus said between ragged breaths.

“It’s not. I don’t have to touch you to know how badly you want me.” He moved his hand again, the tips of his fingers scraping ever so delicately across the curls concealing her womanhood. “Though if I did, I think we’d find out quickly just how much you do….”

Dear Reader,

Welcome to THE BAD GIRLS CLUB! I think every romance reader has come across a book that has a great “bad girl” secondary character—a woman whose story they’d like to read. But it sometimes seems difficult to envision that slightly outrageous, possibly shady best-friend type as a heroine. Thankfully, in Temptation, anything’s possible!

I loved writing about Venus Messina in my March 2002 book,
Into the Fire
, and many readers apparently loved the plucky redhead, too. The problem was finding just the right hero to be her match. When I finished writing my June book,
Two To Tangle
, I realized I’d found that hero—Troy Langtree. Because who better to bring down a very wicked woman than an even more wicked man?

This book was such fun to write. Venus is my kind of woman—gutsy, strong, funny, sexy and yet, believe it or not, I think she’s the most vulnerable heroine I’ve ever written. And what can I say about Troy? I
adore
him, wicked rogue that he is. The icing on the cake was working with two of my other favorite Temptation authors—Julie Elizabeth Leto and Tori Carrington. The “bar scene” in
Wicked & Willing
should give you a little taste of what’s to come.

Hope you enjoy hanging with the bad girls….

Leslie Kelly

Books by Leslie Kelly

HARLEQUIN TEMPTATION

747—NIGHT WHISPERS

810—SUITE SEDUCTION

841—RELENTLESS

872—INTO THE FIRE

882—TWO TO TANGLE

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

62—NATURALLY NAUGHTY

Leslie Kelly
W
ICKED
& W
ILLING

To Julie, Lori and Tony…
terrific writers, even more terrific friends!
Thanks for making this project
such a wonderful experience.
And to my readers. Thanks for hanging in there
with me for another wild ride.

1

“W
HAT WOULD YOU SAY
if I told you it’s possible you’re the long-lost granddaughter of a millionaire?”

Venus Messina snorted as she twisted the cap off a bottle of Bud, then flipped it into the trash with her thumb. She didn’t even look over her shoulder at the uptight old windbag whom she’d dubbed Mr. Collins—Tom Collins—since that was his drink of choice. He sat at the end of the bar and had been trying to engage her in conversation since the moment he arrived.

Granddaughter of a millionaire. Right.

Lemme guess…my Granny is Miss Manners. Cause everyone can see I’m just like her.
She chuckled under her breath.

The man persisted. “…and his direct heir?”

Though his voice grated shrilly over the noisy chatter in the crowded room, nobody even glanced over in curiosity. It was late into Happy Hour on a hot Friday night in June, and everyone knew Friday nights in an Irish pub were as good a place for outrageous stories and high drama as any movie theater.

Tonight was the third time this week the man had parked himself here at Flanagan’s, her foster uncle’s bar, where she’d been working until she could find a full-time job. The first night, the man had been so quiet she almost hadn’t heard his drink order. He’d looked as out of his element as a nun in a strip club. Not so much in the way he dressed, though. After all, Flanagan’s catered to a lot of
ambitious, wealthy businesspeople who spent their days bowing down to the almighty dollar in one of the many huge office buildings in downtown Baltimore.

No, he didn’t look out of place because of his pricey dark suit, which even Venus could tell probably cost more than she made in a month—or more than she
had
made in a month when she’d actually been employed full-time. Instead, it was his stiffness, the upturned tilt of his pointy chin, the way his nose flared in that irritating way when somebody stepped too close. The way he combed one long strand of graying hair over the top of his head to hide a bald spot, because, after all, rich people were much too refined to ever wear something as gaudy as a toupee.

Nope, she couldn’t say she liked Mr. Collins, even if he was a damn good tipper.

“Are you even going to answer me, young lady?”

The imperious tone said he’d given up on easy friendliness, something he’d tried last night and failed at miserably. Mr. Collins’s face looked like it was going to crack from his smile—obviously he didn’t use it very often.

Tonight he’d skipped friendly and gone for nosy. He’d been trying to engage her in conversation and had been asking way too many personal questions—none of which she’d answered, of course. After she’d spent the past hour ignoring everything he said that wasn’t prefaced by the standard, “Bartender, get me a…,” he’d finally blurted out his ridiculous millionaire comment.

“Well?” he prompted, impatiently tapping his perfectly manicured fingers on the top of the pitted, sticky bar.

Sliding the bottle of Bud and a Fuzzy Navel—a disaster of a drink if ever there was one—to the yuppie couple
seated at the bar, she muttered, “I’d say somewhere a village is seriously missing its idiot.”

Yuppie man grinned. His date, with the pisspoor taste in drinks, gave Venus a quick frown, warning her away from spoken-for territory.
As if, lady.
Guys in ties were definitely not Venus’s bag these days. As a matter of fact, she’d lately sworn off all men in general. Her last relationship had burned her—
badly
—leaving her not only brokenhearted, but jobless to boot.

Besides which, Venus had decided thirty was too old to keep playing the field. She looked forward to her thirtieth birthday the way a condemned prisoner looked forward to the executioner.

Thirty. Less than a year away.
Now, doesn’t that suck?

Venus didn’t so much mind the number. She
did
mind not being where she’d thought she’d be by age thirty—in a great job, a stable relationship, a house, maybe even with a couple of rugrats running around. Her upbringing had made her desire
The Brady Bunch
life as an adult.

At the rate she was going, she’d be lucky with
The Os-bournes
.

“It would behoove you to take a brief break and speak with me,” Mr. Tom Collins said, still red in the face from her previous comment.

“Behoove?” She paused to finish pulling a draught of Guinness, complete with the requisite “G” swirl of foam on top. She pushed it toward the waitress, and grinned as Janie rolled her eyes behind the annoying man’s back. “It would also behoove me to earn my paycheck, don’tcha think, Janie?”

The woman snorted. “You call what that cheapskate Joe pays us a paycheck?” Venus took no offense. Janie was Joe’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. This week they were off-again.

Besides, Janie was right. The pay was pretty abysmal. It was the tips that had kept her clothed and fed for several months. For some reason, the regulars at Flanagan’s seemed to like Venus’s caustic wit and in-your-face attitude. Plus, she made a damn fine Bloody Mary, if she did say so herself.

But bartending wasn’t exactly her dream job. Up until eight months ago, Venus had had the job she’d always hoped for, complete with the kind of salary that had enabled her to actually open a savings account. Starting out in the typing pool of a financial company right out of high school, she’d worked her way up for ten years. She’d scraped and studied, taken college night courses when she could. She’d put in long hours and kept the right attitude, including keeping her mouth shut when the occasion warranted it. Eventually she’d ended up in management in the HR department.

Then she’d been stupid enough to let down her guard, to get involved with Dale, one of the executives in the company. She’d fallen in…well, not love, but at least infatuation. He’d fallen in lust. Unfortunately, she’d gotten over the infatuation a little sooner than he’d gotten over the lust. When she’d broken it off, he hadn’t been pleased.

In fact, he’d been so displeased, Dale had made sure Venus ended up on the unemployment line three months later.

Hence, her dislike for guys in ties.

Without a college degree to go with her experience, Venus had simply been unable to find a new job—unless she wanted to start all over again at the bottom of the ladder.

She might reach that point. If she hadn’t had this job at Joe’s place to fall back on, plus the remainder of that
nearly empty savings account, she probably already would have. But holding out for a better-paying job wasn’t just about taking care of herself. She needed to make enough to get back to helping Ma. Her foster mother had insisted she was doing fine, but Venus knew more than most the way Maureen struggled. Until her layoff, Venus had managed to send enough back to Trenton to make a real difference for the four kids currently living in her old home.

She wanted to be able to do so again. Soon.

“Imagine not having to worry about a paycheck,” the man said, sounding almost desperate. “Please, Ms. Messina, give me a few minutes of your time.” The word “please,” and the urgency in his voice, made her pause and really look at the man.

“Go ahead, V,” she heard from behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the sardonic look on her uncle Joe’s craggy red face. “And if you’re a millionaire heiress, don’t forget who taught you to ride a bike.”

“That woulda been Tony Cabrini, the boy in 6A,” she replied with a saucy grin.

Joe wagged his index finger at her. “And who taught you how to deal with Tony Cabrini and boys like him when he got fresh on your fourteenth birthday?”

Venus fisted a hand and put it on her hip. “Ma did.”

“Well, who do ya think taught
her
that knee trick, hmm?”

Laughing helplessly, she said, “Okay, okay. Thanks for teaching her the knee trick, Uncle Joe.”

Not that she’d ever used it on Tony Cabrini. The last time she’d seen him, her knee definitely was
not
the body part she’d reacted with when he “got fresh.” She’d lost her virginity to Tony in the laundry room of their building when she was sixteen.

Venus still had a real fondness for the spin cycle.

“Now, take a break,” Joe said. “You can use my office.” He turned toward the stranger. “Don’t try nothing funny. You try to run a con on her and I’ll make sure you have to drink your vodka through a straw for the rest of your life.”

Venus gave Joe a quick hug, noting his start of surprise. Though not a real blood relation, he was as close as any uncle one could want. His sister, Maureen, had been Venus’s foster mother since age eight. She remembered looking forward to Joe’s visits to Jersey the way she’d look forward to Santa in December—even if Santa had usually brought only sensible clothes and donated secondhand toys, rather than the Barbie stuff and play makeup Venus had asked for.

Heck, when she thought about it, Joe’s visits were probably more entertaining than Santa’s anyway. Joe had taught her to play poker when she was ten. He’d taught her to spit like a boy when she was twelve. He’d taught her how to fake a fever to avoid a big exam when she was fourteen.

He’d also taught her that being poor was nothing to be ashamed of, and used himself as an example of how you could get what you want if you were willing to work for it.

She’d never forgotten the lesson.

Joe had also been the one who helped Venus when she’d come to Baltimore looking for a job right out of high school. And he’d been her closest family member ever since.

“Okay,” she said over her shoulder to her impatient customer. “You’ve got five minutes.”

Leading him through a swinging door, Venus walked into the cement-floored storage room, piled high with
boxes and crates, broken bar stools and lined with shelves full of premium liquor. At the back of the room was the desk Joe referred to as his office. Sitting in Joe’s well-worn chair, Venus leaned back, crossed her arms over her chest, and watched as the stranger sat in the metal folding chair opposite her. “Now why don’t you tell me who you are and what the hell it is you want?”

Though he stiffened, she didn’t apologize. He was on her dime. And if he didn’t like her attitude, that was too damn bad. To Venus, attitude was everything.

“My name is Leo Gallagher,” he finally said. “And, to confirm, you are Venus Messina, born in Trenton, and your parents are Trina O’Reilly and Matt Messina?”

“So they tell me, not that I know for sure since I never laid eyes on my father,” she said. Then she narrowed her eyes. “Any particular reason you’ve been checking up on me?”

He ignored her question and mumbled, “The hair is a surprise. But the eyes, that deep green…”

Venus watched as he looked her over again, knowing what he saw—a tall redhead with a big mouth and the kind of figure that could turn horny men into drooling idiots and jealous women into shrews. Venus had long since stopped feeling self-conscious about her height or her very curvy figure. But she began to fidget as the man continued to study her.

“Your parents weren’t married.”

It wasn’t a question, but she answered anyway. “Nope. Shocking, huh? My mother used to joke about how awful her name would have been, Trina Messina.”

He ignored her sarcasm. “You never knew your father, and lost your mother to cancer when you were eight.”

Venus clenched her back teeth, fighting the impulse to
stand up and walk out of here. “What do you want?” she bit out.

He seemed to sense her patience was nearing its end. “Ms. Messina, I believe your father, who called himself Matt Messina, may actually have been my cousin, Maxwell Longotti, Jr.”

Her heart beat a little faster, but Venus took a deep breath, ignoring it. “Why?”

“My cousin left my uncle’s estate in Atlanta thirty years ago, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian. He stayed in New York for a while, using a stage name—Matt Messina.”

Her heart quickened even more. “My mother met my father in New York, but she never mentioned a stage name.”
However, she did say he’d made her laugh like no one else she ever knew
.

“She might not have even been aware of it. I don’t believe they could have known each other very long. He was in New York City for only a few weeks, and then he went out to California.”

Unable to help it, she asked, “Where is he now?”

“He was killed in a car accident less than a year later.”

Venus closed her eyes, angry with herself for allowing a tiny spark of hope to burn for the briefest moment. “Oh.”

“He planned to return to New York, but was going to stop in Atlanta first to try to make amends with Uncle Max. They’d parted rather bitterly, you see. He phoned, said he wanted to mend fences. Something amazing had happened, he said. Something that made him reevaluate the importance of family.”

Like finding out he had a baby with a woman he’d had a fling with back in New York?
She thrust the thought away.

“The next day we heard Max had been killed. When
his father went out west to settle things, he found a card in Max’s apartment. It simply said, ‘Congratulations, Daddy.’ Inside was a photo of a baby with the name Violet written on the back.”

“My name’s Venus,” she immediately countered.

The man shrugged, as if unconcerned. “Possibly a nickname? Perhaps your mother changed her mind?”

“No
way
would my mother name me Violet. Besides, I think I would know my own name.”

Leo glanced away, not meeting her eye. “Are you certain of the name on your birth certificate?”

“I’ve never seen it. There was a robbery at my foster mother’s place back when I was in high school and a bunch of papers got stolen.”

He raised a brow.

“But,” she insisted, “my driver’s license, social security card and school records all say Venus. I think by now somebody woulda figured it out if I’d been using an illegal name.”

“Perhaps. But no matter.” The man—who thought he could be her what…uncle? Second cousin?—smiled thinly. “The point is, there is enough circumstantial evidence to think it is
possible
you are my cousin’s illegitimate daughter.”

BOOK: Wicked & Willing: Bad Girls
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