First Available May 2007

Wicked Audra Walker’s old crowd thought she’d turned her back on them and what they liked best-namely hot sex and available men. But they were so wrong.

Wanton And Audra was in the mood to prove it. How? By taking their dare. The challenge? To seduce the very next man through the club door–regardless of who he was.

Wanted What the classy chick at the bar saw in his suspect was anybody’s guess. But undercover cop Jesse Martinez would make it his business to find out. Because no guy–unless he was dead from the neck down–would miss the chance to investigate the curvy brunette, too.

ISBN-10: 0373793286 ISBN-13: 978-0-373-79328-0


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Chapter One

     Maybe she should have seen it coming, but a girl just didn’t expect to get knifed in the back by her best friends.

“Wanna repeat that?” Audra Walker requested in a smooth, calm voice.  She was rather proud of that tone.  It didn’t show the anger or the gut wrenching hurt she was feeling.  She was sure her face, carefully made up for this evening of revelry and celebration, was equally calm.  After all, hiding her true feelings was old hat to her.

She spared a glance at her surroundings.  The Wild Thing was typical of most of the clubs Audra’s friends frequented.  The beat of the music and voices reverberated in time with teal lights flashing overhead.  Places like this were always bright and loud and hadn’t ever bothered Audra before.  Then again, her friends hadn’t been idiots before, either.

“You’re just not into it anymore, Audra.  Face it, you no longer qualify as a Wicked Chick,” Suzi Willits said, her breathy voice as serious as it ever got.  The buxom blonde shrugged one toned shoulder, making her ample breasts bounce under her leopard print tank top.  “We might not mean much to you these days, but we do have standards to uphold, you know.”

“The Standard of the Double D.  Of course I know,” she said with a roll of her eyes.  Maybe this was a joke?  They’d rib her for a while, then spring a congratulations-on-your-promotion present on her or something.  To stifle the simmering panic in her belly, Audra shifted in her seat and breathed deep.  The scent of her friends’ perfume was as familiar to her as her own.

“I’m the one who came up with it.  Dudes and drinks, the Wicked Chick’s tools of the trade.”

“Right, so you know better than anyone how important it is to keep those tools sharp and fresh, don’t you?” Suzi challenged.  It wasn’t her tone that forced Audra to accept they were serious.  It was the fact that Suzi waved away the hot guy who’d just signaled her to come dance with him.

Audra’s gaze flicked from Suzi to Bea Tanner.  Rather than meeting her eyes, the redhead kept her own gaze averted, making a show of swirling a piece of mango through the froth of her margarita.

Audra thought about laughing in their faces.  It’d be easy enough to toss back her drink, slide from the barstool and tell them both to kiss her ass before sashaying out of the nightclub.  The only thing stopping her was the fact that Suzi and Bea were two of her closest friends.  And while they might not be the poster children for loving support, the three of them had been hanging together since they were wicked chicks in training at fourteen, doing junior high detention together.

Ten years later, and still a hard ass with a bad attitude, Audra didn’t have many friends other than Bea, Suzi and Isabel.  Most people, both growing up and even now, looked at her and saw imminent failure.  She’d never cared since they were always there for her.  With her dismal upbringing, she’d always considered these women her family, albeit a little dysfunctional at times.  Without them, she was just a hard ass with killer curves.  They’d been the ones to show her how to use those curves.

She glanced over as the last member of their little party rejoined them at the table.  Slightly winded from her dance, the dark-haired woman gulped down her soda.  Isabel Santos had been hanging out with Audra since they had both worn ruffled panties.  Although not a member of The Wicked Chicks, Isabel had spent time with the other women off and on over the years.  After school, though, Isabel had focused on her own career, while the Wicked Chicks had focused on enjoying life.  At least, until Audra had the utter temerity to pursue an actual career.

“You’re always hanging out with that Natasha chick now,” Bea accused.  She poked her silicone-filled bottom lip out in a practiced pout.  Her newly colored titian hair framed a face that had graced a magazine cover, as Bea was always quick to point out.  But the look on that face, half-sneer and half-dejection, assured Audra they were dead serious.  They were kicking her out of the Wicked Chicks.

“That Natasha chick is a) my sister-in-law and b) my boss.  And now she’s about to launch a new lingerie line that is exclusively my designs.”  Which is what Audra had thought she was at the club to celebrate.  Her promotion to head designer for Sensual Supports Lingerie.  The achievement of her dreams.

“See, it’s that kind of crap that’s the problem,” Suzi pointed out.  “That’s all we’ve heard this last year.  You have to work.  You have to study.  You can’t party with us because you have early classes. I thought it’d end when you graduated a few months ago, but now you’re all about work instead.”

“Oh, please,” Audra scoffed, “like the two of you don’t have jobs and responsibilities?”

Bea did tend to drift from job to job, but she always worked.  Suzi cut hair in a high-end hair salon in San Francisco and Isabel’s florist shop was flourishing.

“How come your jobs aren’t the issue here?” Audra asked.

We are able to maintain a balance between our jobs and our real lives,” Suzi said in perfect imitation of an upper class snob.

“And what am I doing?”

“You’re building a career,” Bea pointed out quietly.  She said it like Audra was building a weapon of mass destruction, her voice a combination of bemusement, aversion, and fear.

“Why shouldn’t Audra build a career?  She’s a great designer, this is her dream opportunity.  Aren’t you excited for her?” Isabel asked in a surprised tone.  Her grey eyes flashed as indignation built.  “Don’t you guys think you’re being a little unfair?”

“Fair, schmair,” Suzi shot back.  “Friends don’t let friends blow their prime years chasing careers.  That’s the kind of crap you do later… after you’ve lost your sexual mojo.”

Audra tuned out the inevitable debate between Isabel and Suzi over sexual status, aging, equal rights and staying true to friends.  It was old news.

She bit back a scream.  All she heard from her older brother was how her friends were trouble and going to screw up her life.  Isabel was always nagging her to set goals and prioritize her plans.  And now she was hearing from her friends that she wasn’t one of them anymore because she was trying to build a future.  Not one damn person in her life was willing to simply accept her.  All of her.

“I can have both a career and my friends,” Audra insisted.  Wasn’t that the women’s right of the new millennium?  She could have it all?  It wasn’t like Audra was looking to add a husband or anything stupid like that to the mix.

“Some career.”

“I design lingerie,” Audra pointed out, matching Suzi’s sneer with one of her own.  “That’s hardly at odds with my Wicked Chick designation.”

“You’ve always wanted to design sexy, wild lingerie,” Suzi pointed out.  And she’d know, since she and Bea spent years listening to Audra daydream about it, never once discouraging her.

“Instead,” Suzi continued, “you settled for vanilla sweet nighties for virginal brides.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere,” Isabel interjected in Audra’s defense.

Before Suzi could retaliate, Bea pressed her hands to the table, blood-red nails spread like claws against the faux leather surface.

“Enough of this crap.”  The mellowest of them all, her distaste for the bickering and one-upmanship was clear on her face.  “Audra, this is an intervention.  You either prove you’re still one of us, or you lose your Wicked Chick status.”

Isabel gasped.  “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Prove myself?”  Oh geeze, it was junior high school all over again.

Suzi leaned forward with a challenging gleam shining in her midnight-blue eyes.  “Prove yourself.”

Audra rolled her eyes.  “How?  Out-drink you two?  Dance topless on stage?  Give up my job?”

Audra tossed the words out in an airy, unconcerned tone.  But her insides twisted at the thought of either the first or the last.  Given that she’d started her drinking in her early teens, she figured she’d done more than enough partying.  That and she’d watched what drinking had done to her mother, leaving her old and haggard-looking by forty.  The booze wouldn’t do Audra’s skin, or her health, a bit of good.  And she planned to keep both long into the future.  Two drinks were her limit now, although she did a good job of hiding that from her friends.

And quit her job?  Oh, God, no.  She loved that job.  Loved designing lingerie.  She couldn’t think of anything more satisfying than starting with a vision in her head, turning it into a reality and seeing a woman prance out of the boutique empowered by the result.  They couldn’t—wouldn’t—be crazy enough to think she’d give that up.

“How about all thr–”

“No, much simpler,” Bea interrupted with a dark look at the blonde.  Suzi sat back with a huff and a roll of her eyes.

Audra waited.  The music pounded a heavy beat around her, the cacophony of voices blending with the percussions.

“I dare you…” Bea began.

Oh, hell, she should have known.
“…to do the next guy to come through the door.”

“This is silly,” Isabel stated.  Her brown eyes flashed with rare anger.  She crossed her arms over her chest, her sweater pulling tight to curves she tended to hide, rather than display like the other three women.  “Haven’t you outgrown that silly game?  I thought your club was all about empowerment, not pressure.  Audra’s your friend.  She doesn’t have to do anything to prove herself.”

A voice in Audra’s head agreed.  She didn’t have to.  Like drinking, impersonal sex had long since lost its appeal.  She could have just as good a time with her vibrator as with most guys.  And at least her ‘D-celled’ friend guaranteed she’d come.  Swear to God, most guys didn’t seem to know the difference between the ‘g-spot’ and a parking spot.

But if she didn’t, she’d be saying good-bye to something vital.  Not just her friendships were on the line here, Audra realized with a start.  So was her sense of self.  The bad ass wild part of her seemed to be fading away.  And she didn’t have a clue what, if anything, she’d find underneath.

“Hey, no problem.  I never mind scratching that particular itch.”

Ignoring Isabel’s disappointed look, she gave the girls a wink, tossed back the last of her strawberry margarita and straightened her shoulders.  Turning on the barstool, she leaned her elbows back on the table, faced the door and sent up a prayer that the next guy through knew how to park.

Holy cow.  She eyed the sexy hunk standing in the doorway and exhaled a deep sigh of appreciation.  Oh yeah, he’d not only know how to park, but she’d bet he was hell on wheels.  Audra took inventory, starting at what she estimated to be size twelve biker boots.  Her gaze took a slow, appreciative tour up well-worn denim, lingering on a few particularly worn places.

Very nice.

She continued her tour over a well-defined chest and, mmm mmm good, perfect shoulders.  The denim work shirt was rolled up to the elbows, buttoned about halfway up to showcase that chest, wide and lightly dusted with a sprinkling of dark hair.  How would that hair feel against her cheek?  Soft and sensual?  Wiry and erotic?  Did it thicken as it meandered down his belly?  Or did it taper to a very delicious point?

If he’d hurry up and walk through the door, she could find out.  Anticipation made Audra antsy.  She shifted in her seat and held her breath while her gaze rose to his face.

Oh, baby.  Eyes half-mast, a wave of lust-induced appreciation crashed through her system.  Now that was one hot man.  Black hair tumbled around a face just this side of pretty.  His full lower lip promised a sensual nature and, although she couldn’t see his eyes in any detail, the man had cheekbones to die for.  The only thing that saved him from being girly-pretty was a stubborn jaw and his nose, obviously broken a couple times.

“Good thing I wore my sexiest lingerie, hmm?”

Bea laughed and gave an appreciative hum.  Even Isabel mouthed ‘wow’, although the look in her eyes still screamed disapproval.  Not surprising, since Isabel had never been comfortable with casual sex.  At Suzi’s silence, Audra glanced over.  The blonde didn’t look thrilled.  If anything, she looked a little pouty.  The rules of the dare were that neither of the others could come on to the dare guy.  Which put hot, tall and sexy off limits for Suzi.

Audra couldn’t resist taunting her.  “One small step for him, one giant orgasm for me.”

Suzi grinned and started to say something, then her eyes widened and she winced.

“Ooops,” Bea said under her breath.

Isabel cringed.

Stomach suddenly tight, Audra followed their gaze to the entrance where the hunk still stood in conversation with the bouncer just outside the arch that they deemed the official entrance for dares.  Disappointment sunk like a chunk of lead in her stomach when she saw the source of her friends’ horror.  Shouldering the hunk aside was another guy.  A non-hunky guy.  A totally geeked out non-hunky guy.  Audra’s stomach turned, but did she see any way out of the dare.  Not with her pride intact.

“Ya think he’s got anything in that pocket protector you can get up?”  Obviously trying to ease the tension, Suzi called the waitress over for a second round.  “You’ll need a drink before this one, Audra.  My treat.”

Was she supposed to be grateful?

“And as soon as you prove you’ve still got it in you to take a dare, maybe I’ll go get myself a whole different kind of treat,” Suzi mused.  Audra followed her gaze to where hot, tall and sexy had taken a seat, two tables over from Audra’s target.  Rarely territorial over men, Audra surprised to find the idea of Suzi and the sexy hunk made her teeth clench.

She grimaced her thanks at the waitress and knocked back her margarita in one long gulp.  Audra ran her index finger under her lower lip to make sure her lipstick wasn’t smudged.  Might as well get it over with.  She slipped from the stool and sucked in a deep breath.  A little shimmy of the shoulders to make sure everything was where it belonged, her fingertips brushed the hem of her leather mini and she let out her breath.

Isabel protested, “Audra, you don’t have to go through with this.  I’m sure Suzi and Bea are just riding you.  You guys have been tight for years, you don’t have to prove your friendship.  Especially not by having random sex with some…” she grimaced at the geek, “creepy stranger.”

She shot the other two women a dark look.  Pink washed over Bea’s cheeks, and with a half-hearted shrug, she averted her gaze.

Suzi, though, stuck out her chin.

“Hey, we never said jack about friendship.  Audra knows we’re all amigas.  This is about being true to the Wicked Chicks code.  Nobody’s forcing her to re-up her membership.  That’s her call.  Hers.  Not yours.”

With that statement, the underlying hurt and confusion in Suzi’s tone, Audra realized her friends needed reassurance.  This wasn’t about where she stood with the Wicked Chicks.  It was about where they stood with her.

Her friendship with Suzi and Bea was changing, sure.  Did that matter?

Audra sucked in a breath.  Yes, it mattered.  These women were more than buddies to run around with.  They were more than a part of her history.  They’d accepted her, encouraged her.  And, even if they were pains in the ass, they both gave her something nobody else, other than Isabel, ever had.  Unconditional acceptance.

At least, they had until tonight.

The music pulsing around her, Audra knew she could shrug and–just like she’d grown out of acne, her spandex phase, and the desperate anger that’d fueled her for so many years–let her ties with the other women go.

But being wicked wasn’t just a designation.  It defined her.  She was a bad girl.  From her pre-pubescent years under the bleachers to her wild cross-country rebellion when her father died, being bad was how she dealt with life.

Without it, what did she have left?  Since she didn’t know the answer, she obviously had no choice.

“I’m a lifetime member,” she drawled.  “Let’s just hope the geek over there can handle me.”

Isabel opened her mouth, probably to protest.  Then, with a shrug and a sigh that summed up why she’d never quite fit in with the other women, she just rolled her eyes and sat back.

“Go get him, tiger,” Bea said.

“Oh yeah, have a great time,” Suzi said with a wink.

Audra bit back a snarky response.  Her gaze caught on the hunk again and she grinned.  There was no rule against a nibble of an appetizer before hitting on the main course.

 

Jesse Martinez looked around the nightclub and bit back a sigh.  Purple walls were covered in teal neon lights.  The dance floor was tri-level and the chrome bar wrapped around the room.  The band was on break, but a deejay played Top Forty rock.  Definitely not Jesse’s kind of place.  Crowded, loud and filled with psuedo-perfect bodies, all on the make.  How the hell had he ended up here?

Oh, he could blame it on work.  Legitimately, he was on a job.  But he could be back in his office with his computer.  That was his job description, after all.  A Cyber Crimes detective with the Sacramento PD, he wasn’t required to follow dirtbags in person.  He did it over the world wide web, instead.  But, no, sucker that he was, he hadn’t been able to back down from a co-worker’s dare that he get off his butt and get his hands dirty.  Do real work.  Show what he was made of.  Damned if Jesse could back down from a dare, especially one couched in insults to his manhood.

He should probably work to reprogram that defective element of his personality.  But since it was one of the few traits he actually appreciated having in common with his late father, he was loathe to lose it.

Instead, he ended up in tacky nightclubs.  Jesse sighed, but gave the waitress a smile and ordered a beer.  He eyed the dorky dude a couple tables over.  The guy was fidgety as hell, his fingers tapping on the table, his knee bouncing to a completely different rhythm.  He looked like a virgin on a blind date with a porn queen.  Or like he was about to rob the place.

The guy’s name was Dave Larson and he was a computer hacker with a taste for gambling.  Jesse had it on good authority that Larson was butt deep in organized crime and determined to work his way up one of the dirtiest crime ladder’s in Northern California, the Du Bing Li Triad.  Since there were any number of tasks a guy with Dave’s computer skills could provide, Jesse wasn’t sure just what the geek was up to.  But one thing was sure, it was no good.

Which is why he’d followed him to the club.

The waitress returned with his beer.  Jesse reached for his wallet when a slim hand pressed against his forearm.

“Let me get that for you.”

Jesse’s brain, at least the independent gentlemanly part, shut down.  Apparently his vocal cords did too, because he couldn’t say a word.  All he could do was stare.

Temptation and pure sin, wrapped in black leather.  The still functioning portion of Jesse’s brain cataloged the woman’s features.  Huge doe eyes with a thick fringe of lashes dominated a narrow face.  Shiny red lips looked like she’d just eaten something juicy, tempting him to lean forward for a taste.  Her short hair was jet black, the spiky ends tipped with magenta.  Her body was a teenage boy’s wet dream, all curves and sleek lines.

But it was her voice that had him in a trance.  It was made for sex.  The husky lisp brought to mind talking dirty in the dark.  And he could tell in that one look, she definitely knew how to talk dirty.

The waitress snickered as she left and Jesse pulled himself together.

“Thanks for the offer, but I can handle paying for my own drink.”  He wished he didn’t sound like he had a stick up his ass, but that didn’t appear to be happening.

A slow, wicked smile curved those sleek red lips and she leaned in close to whisper, “You look like a man who could handle just about anything.”

She waited a beat, long enough for the image of just exactly how he’d like to handle her to fully form in his mind, then she leaned back and winked.  “As for the drink, call it a welcome gesture.  I haven’t seen you in here before.”

“You’re here a lot, huh?”  Jesse mentally groaned.  Could he be any wittier?  Of course she was here a lot, she obviously hadn’t stumbled in on her way from a church social.  For a computer geek like himself, she was the ultimate fantasy.  Sexy as hell, and twice as aggressive.  Not that Jesse didn’t know how to please a woman in bed, he was damned good at it.  But he was used to real women, flesh and blood.  Not sexual goddesses like the one standing in front of him.  Close enough to touch, but totally out of reach.

“Actually I haven’t been in here in, like, forever.  But…”  She looked left, then right, then whispered, “Shhh, don’t tell anyone or it’d ruin a great pickup line.”

Jesse laughed with her, and just like that, she was within reach.  He relaxed and lifted his beer to toast her.

“It’ll be our little secret,” he promised.  “I’m Jesse.”

“Audra,” she said as she took his hand.

Damn.  Jesse’s body, all the vital parts, leaped to attention as sexual awareness surged through him at the touch of her hand in his.  A hand that felt oddly delicate for a woman with such a powerful presence.

Which was closer to the real woman—the hot, sexy babe she appeared to be, or the soft, gentle woman both her fragile hand and her easy humor suggested?  Unable to leave a puzzle unsolved, he knew his mind wouldn’t rest until he’d figured her out.  To say nothing of everything his body wanted to learn about her.

“The least I can do is buy you a drink in return,” Jesse offered.

Her brown eyes lit up, then dimmed as her gaze slid away.  “I’d love that, but I’m actually meeting someone else tonight.  Blind date, of a sort, you know?”

Maybe it was ego, but he swore the regret in her voice was genuine.

“You don’t sound excited.”

“Hardly,” she laughed.  She got a naughty look in her eye, shot a glance over her shoulder, then leaned close.  “But you can help me.”

“How?”

“A little fun, kind of like that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.”

Before Jesse could laugh, she’d stepped close.  So close only a bare inch separated her breasts from his forearm.  Seated as he was on the stool, they were eye to eye.  He automatically shifted so his hand was on her hip and she winked her approval.

Then she kissed him and blew his mind.

It started as a soft brush of her lips over his, just a whisper.  Her breath mingled with his a moment as their eyes met, then something wild burned in hers before the thick fringe of lashes covered them.  With a quick intake of breath, she slid her tongue along his lower lip.  The act was so sensual in its simplicity, so seductive in its delicious temptation, Jesse almost whimpered.

Before he could respond, she stepped back and winked.

“Nice to meet you, Jesse.  I’ll see you later, maybe.”

Fascinated, he murmured his goodbye and watched her walk away.

No maybe about it, he didn’t plan to wait for later.  Jesse started to slide off the barstool to follow her.  Half out of his seat, he watched, baffled, as she stopped at Davey’s table.  She leaned across the narrow circular surface and said something that made the dork blush.  Jesse watched the guy start stuttering and babbling.

With a frown, Jesse settled back on the barstool to watch.  What did Audra have to do with a guy like Davey Larson?  A simple blind date, like she’d said?  A blind date, of a sort?  What sort?  Dave Larson was hip deep in crime, both organized and sloppy.  Where did Audra come in?

Rumor had it Davey had caught the eye of the top echelon of a local crime ring.  The head of that ring had a habit of using his women for deliveries.  Was she the handoff?  Delivery or receiving?  Either way, it boded poorly for Jesse’s shot at experiencing his ultimate fantasy.

A haze of jealousy blurred his vision when, instead of taking the seat opposite Davey, Audra slid around to sit next to him.  Damn near in the dork’s lap.  When she tiptoed those delicate fingers of hers up the guy’s butt-ugly tie, Jesse actually growled out loud.

Jesse watched Audra lean in close to Davey and whisper something.  Whatever it was must have been a doozy, because Dave jumped like she’d goosed him.  A damp sheen coated his lanky face and his eyes bulged.  Audra looped her finger through the knot on his tie and Davey skittered back.  A group of partiers blocked Jesse’s view.  He craned his neck but could barely see the top of their heads.

When the crowd shifted, Jesse saw Davey shaking his head like crazy.  She said something, and Dave turned a little green around the gills, then jumped up from the table.  Audra stared wide-eyed at him as he babbled.  She was lucky not to get nailed in the face by the wild gestures the dork made.  He finally ran out of steam.  Mouth ajar, Audra looked stunned for a second, then said something.  When Davey gave a frantic shake of his head, she held out her hand.  Jesse couldn’t see what she was holding, but Davey’s eyes bulged in horror and he scampered away from the table, throwing one last comment over his skinny shoulder.

Jesse slid from his seat, prepared to follow Dave.  He hesitated, glancing at Audra.  Even with her mouth hanging open, she was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen.  He debated between pursuing Dave or hooking up with Audra to find out what her connection was.

Before he could take a step toward her, though, she was surrounded by three women, their shocked expressions all matching Audra’s.  He eyed the blonde, redhead and brunette, but none popped as criminals in his mental databank.  Then again, neither had Audra.

From the looks of them, the ladies would be around for awhile.  Davey, though, was scurrying off like a scared rat.  Jesse hightailed it after the rat, but couldn’t help shooting a final look of regret for the woman who’d briefly held the promise of fulfilling his every fantasy.

 

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