The gun blasts jerked Aaro up from behind his human shield. He clambered over the stiff, his heart stuck high in his throat. Eight shots. Nina Christie had to be dead. He’d done it again. Called it wrong, gotten the chick killed by racing in here like a cranked up asshole, freaking the bad guys into a panic. He should have come up with something sneakier, quieter, smarter. Goddamn them all, his so-called friends, for putting him in this position. Like he didn’t have enough to feel like shit about every fucking day of his life.
He slapped the bedroom door open. Window gaping, curtains fluttering. Stench of gunpowder. He lunged for the window, caught a glimpse of a big bald guy, staring up at him, with pale snake eyes. Another man, tall and dark, was clambering over garbage cans.
Aaro squeezed off two shots, then two more at the bald one. Bullets pumped into the garbage bins, whinged off a parked car. The bald guy dove and scrambled for cover. The dark guy jerked, stumbled, and kept on going, ducking out of sight into the alley.
Grazed, maybe. No pursuit possible. He had bigger problems now.
He pulled his head back in, and faced the closet. It gaped open. Clothes were scattered on the floor. The back panel was splintered with bullet holes. Now came the ugly part. His mess, his failure, in his face. He had to call the EMT’s for a woman who was dying because of his poor crisis decision making skills. And explain himself to the cops, too.
And then to Bruno and Lily. Well. Then again. Maybe he could arrange to get himself hit by a bus, and just skip that part.
“Nina?” He was disgusted by the hitch in his voice. “You there?”
No answer. Hadn’t expected one. Not after six bullets.
He put his hand against the holes in the back panel. His legs shook. “Nina? You in there? I’m not one of those guys who attacked you. I’m Aaro, the guy who pissed you off on the phone, remember? Bruno told me you were in trouble. Are you shot?” He clenched his jaw, hating the goddamn silence. Hating it.
“Aaro?” It was just a squeak, barely audible. “You’re Aaro?”
“Nina?” Hope jolted his insides hard, and a hot rush of moisture fogged his eyes, making him blink. “Nina? Are you shot? Are you hurt?”
“I think, ah . . . I think I’m OK.”
He rattled the panel, pounded it. “How do you open this thing?”
“Just a minute,” she faltered. “I have t-t-to undo the latch, and I’m kind of wedged in here, so . . . um . . . hold on while I . . .”
He heard a scratching and shifting inside. Then a rattle, a click.
The panel slid open. Nina Christie was huddled inside, stark naked. Curly dark hair draped over her face and trailed over her shoulders. She blinked, her aqua-green and gold eyes huge and haunted. She had long lashes. The dark waving hair over her face was snarled in them. Her parted lips looked bluish.
“Nina Christie?” he prompted, feeling stupid. Who else could she be? But he could think of nothing to say to the naked chick who had just dodged death. Not like he had a lot of clever conversational gambits floating up to the surface of his mind in the best of circumstances. He just scooped up whatever floated on top of his mind like pond scum, and plop, there it was. No filters. What you see is what you get.
He squatted down so that they would be eye to eye, and peered into the dark recesses of the closet. A couple of big hard-shell suitcases were piled one on top of the other. She’d wedged herself behind them. That was what had saved her life. It was no thanks to him.
Her blinking shook loose the tears that had gathered in her eyes. They flashed down her cheeks, glinting. “A-a-a-aro?”
Uh oh. The way she stared up at him gave him a twinge of dread. All big-eyed and misty, as if he were God, her saviour, her hero. She was in for a rude shock when the truth became clear. Wouldn’t take long for that to happen. It never did.
“Yeah, that’s me.” Discomfort roughened his voice. He tried to look unthreatening, a talent at which he did not excel. “Bruno sent me.”
“B-b-bruno?” The girl was scared stupid.
He fought for patience. “Bruno. Your best friend’s future husband? The father of her unborn child?” He fought down his natural urge to be a sarcastic asshole, but she didn’t react. She just crouched there, staring up at him, with those huge, shocked eyes. Her purplish lips shook. He had to get her dressed, take her someplace safe. What would he do if she collapsed? Urgent Care? That would involve filling out papers, explanations, accountability. Cops. Bad scene. Damn.
He made his voice gentle, with some effort. “Come out of the closet, Nina. We have to get out of here. We don’t know when they’ll be back, how many there are, or anything else. So move.”
No reaction. More quivering lips. More blinking. Shit. He was going to have to drag her out. He steeled himself for a screaming, scratching hysterical freak-out. She was entitled, after that.
He reached in, took her hands. They were icy. He chafed them between his own, and tugged. She came out, offering no resistance.
In fact, she practically flew out, and came to rest right in his arms. There was a weird inevitability to it. A key to a lock. Like they were magentized. Snick, and they were fused, and he was hugging the naked girl, and feeling strange about it. His arms shook, his guts vibrated, his heart tripped over itself. He was squeezing her too hard. Had to loosen his grip. He’d scare her worse than she was already.
He couldn’t. His eyes watered, and what the fuck was that about? He hid his face against her hair, used it to blot the tears away.
This was stupid. They had no time to indulge in masturbatory hugging bullshit, with bullet holes smoking and cops on their way. But what was he supposed to do, fling her off? Her face pressed against his shirt. Her eyelash flutters tickled his collarbone. Her breath bloomed, humid against his chest. The sensation rocketed through his nerves.
Whoa. Back off. Don’t start with that crazy shit. Don’t even start.
Then he caught her scent. And oh. God.
He lived in a forest. Outside his house, the spruce, cedars, firs and pines towered hundreds of feet over his head, a vaulted expanse of flickering green. When it rained, which was often, the earthy sweetness of pine needles, tree bark, loam and moss, rose to meet the falling rain. The meeting point of earth and water. Perfect balance. The intersection of opposites. It was the exact scent of Nina Christie’s hair.
He’d bought that property for the smell alone. It had been raining when the agent showed him the place, and he just couldn’t resist it.
So her shampoo has a nice perfume. Get the fuck over it. He knew how to dismantle a foolish notion with a few hard, well-placed blows.
But the damage was done. Now he was hyper-aware of her. His body felt like one big eye that could not close. He caught sight of the mirror on her closet door. There he was, clutching the gorgeous naked chick, like he was about to push her down onto the floor and fuck her.
Wow. So pale. Curvy. Her dark hair draped in swags over his wrist. His fingers looked very brown against the pale, smooth skin.
His fingers tightened. She was soft, silky. Chubbier than the girls he usually ogled, but maybe he’d been missing something, favoring the taut, lean ones. Her breasts pressed against his chest, springy and soft. Her bare, tight nipples brushed his chest. Her locks of dark hair tapered off so that the tips barely tickled the swell of her ass. He wanted to touch the rosy blush. To pet that peachy, shadowy cleft.
His body, jangling with adrenaline, did its fucking stupid animal thing, and sprang to attention. His hands had taken off without permission on an exploratory mission, fingers splaying greedily to feel the dip of her waist, to grip the curve of her hip.
For God’s sake, get a grip, you oversexed bonehead. This woman was all fucked up. She wasn’t coming on. She didn’t need attention from the beast lunging on its chain. Back down, already. Now.
He clenched his jaw hard enough to cause nerve damage, and dragged his mind away from the hot throb in his crotch. Good timing, decency, self control, gallantry; none of these items had ever been on his resume. He’d just pretend this was normal. Gunfights, pulling zaftig naked girls with bouncing tits out of closets. No biggie. All in a day’s work. Nina Christie did not need his engorged prick bobbing hopefully in her direction. She needed a hot cup of tea, a shot of Demerol, a trauma therapist. A police escort.
Bummer for her. All she had was him.