Tamara HoganTamara HoganTamara HoganTamara Hogan

Excerpt: Tempt Me

Book 3: Underbelly Chronicles

Rafe stroked a callused finger over the sinuous body stretched before him—her delicate teacup breast, her supple stomach, the curve of her slippery hip—softly, so softly. “Beautiful,” he murmured reverently.

She was Woman, femininity incarnate…and he'd created her with his own hands. Finally. Relief trickled through his system, a cool mountain stream.

Stepping back from the table, his clay-slick hands extended in front of him, he assessed the abstract nude. Yeah, the hip proportion was slightly off, but it was pretty damn good for a guy who hadn't seen, much less touched, a flesh-and-blood female hip in over a year. Why had his bitch of a muse finally given him permission to express his burning memories of that night in clay? Maybe he had a chance to save his upcoming gallery show after all.

Nudes. That was the answer. A series of nudes, utter simplicity in line and form. A pale, pearlescent glaze, lit from within like her skin. He had to get the ideas down on paper before they disappeared into the ether.

The sketch pad was by the door, leaning against his duffle bag and some perishables he'd hastily unloaded from the Jeep when he'd returned to the cabin so unexpectedly earlier that day. He'd left before daylight, giving himself plenty of time to drive back to Minneapolis and catch his flight, but with each southbound mile, the odd sense of…wrongness, of disquiet, had grown. A half-mile north of the Cloquet cut-off, he'd flat-out panicked, suddenly certain that signing the contract to design functional art sound systems for The Pignello Group's new nightclubs would be an epic mistake, a fork in the road he wouldn't be able to navigate back from. And miraculously, a wisp of an idea was awakening with a slow, languid stretch. He recognized his muse immediately, a familiar friend he'd inexplicably been on the outs with. Without giving himself time to reconsider, he turned the car around and called his agent, instructing her to call off the deal she'd spent months negotiating on his behalf.

He looked at the nude and smiled. If he needed any more validation that turning down the sound system commission had been the right decision, he was looking at her, stretched out and damp, on the cabin's newspaper-protected dining room table.

As he swaddled her in damp cloth and plastic wrap, headlights swept across the west wall. Who the hell…? He hadn't taken the time to close the security gate behind him when he'd driven in earlier, but the private road leading to the cabin was strewn with No Trespassing signs. Couldn't people read? And when had it gotten dark?

He glanced at his sketch pad again. Maybe if he didn't answer the door, whoever it was would turn around and go away, and he could—

The garage door opened with a muffled hum. Whoever had just arrived had the next best thing to a house key. Damn it.

He flicked on the room lights with a nudge of his elbow, and then stalked to the kitchen sink to rinse the worst of the clay from his hands and wrists. He had only himself to blame for the unexpected company. His family thought he was on a plane to Los Angeles, and he hadn't told anyone about his change in plans. Maybe Lukas and Scarlett were sneaking away for a long weekend. Maybe it was Sasha with her latest lover, or his father and Claudette. He glanced at the kitchen counter, where his silent cell phone mocked him. He'd turned it off after letting Brooke and the pilot know that he wouldn't be traveling to California as planned.

Ratcheting back his annoyance, he flipped the switch that would flood the driveway and garage area with light, and opened the heavy oak door. “Wow.” Every surface—the pine boughs, the gravel driveway, the electrical wires, Bailey's tiny red clown car—was filmed over with ice, and—

He blinked. Nope, he wasn't hallucinating; that was Bailey's Mini Cooper all right, limping into the garage as a wicked rain/snow mix spit from the sky and froze on contact. What the hell had she been thinking, driving in such dangerous weather conditions? It was sheer dumb luck that she hadn't skidded off the road, slamming into one of the thousands of lethal, telephone pole-sized pine trees lining the road for miles.

And why hadn't she emerged from the garage yet? “Shit.” Ducking back into the cabin, he jammed his arms into his parka, slung a knit scarf around his neck, stomped his bare feet into a pair of thick-soled Sorels, and headed back out. Needles of sleet pricked his face and bare hands as he shuffled across the driveway as quickly as he dared.

Any thoughts he might have had about renting her a hotel room in town until the weather cleared flew out the window. No one was going anywhere tonight.

He'd keep his hands to himself if it killed him.

Entering the double garage, he found Bailey sitting in the still-running Mini, her white knuckles clutching the steering wheel. When he tapped on driver's window, she blinked but didn't move. It took a couple of tries for him to get the car door open—the iced-over handle kept slipping from his hands—but when he finally succeeded, a blast of sauna-hot air escaped. Somehow, the little car's defroster had kept her windshield free of ice.

“Bailey?” No response other than a shiver. Adrenaline crash. He glanced down at the gearshift. At least she'd managed to put the car into Park. “Bailey, I'm going to turn the car off now.” As he reached for the ignition, his parka sleeve brushed against her down vest, a whoosh of rip-stop fabric. So much for keeping his hands to himself. His traitorous hearing picked up her gasp over the sound of the ice pellets pinging off the garage roof.

He inhaled as her emotional reaction flooded the cab. She was ambrosia. He wanted to swim in her, wallow in her, let her desire for him plane the rough edges off his frazzled libido. But… He waited several silent seconds, and then sighed. Yep, there it was. The guilt chaser.

With Bailey, there was always guilt.

He gently peeled her cramped fingers off the steering wheel. Despite the heat in the car, they were cold as icicles. Now that he had a firm grasp on her hands, he turned her body so she sat sideways on the driver's seat, and tugged her to a standing position. “Come on, sweetheart. Let's go inside.”

“Rafe?” She looked at him, blinking owlishly. She wasn't wearing a lick of makeup, and her blonde pixie hair was completely covered by a black knit cap with two tiny ears sewn onto the crown. “I need to leave.”

Her words sliced like tiny swords, but the emotions behind them were so much more complex: desire, guilt, sheer panic, and utter exhaustion. “Look at the weather. Let's go in the cabin, get warm in front of the fire, and figure out what to do. Come on.” Closing the car door, he led her out of the garage and into the ice pellets pounding down from the sky. “What were you thinking, driving in weather like this?” he muttered, trying to shelter her body with his. Even through the layers of down, her essence leached into him. He gulped like a parched man crawling on hands and knees to a desert oasis.

Hell. What random cosmic alchemies had conspired to make her—an innocent, guilt-ridden human—the sole object of his desire? Why wouldn't anyone else do?

“The roads were okay south of Eveleth,” she muttered, skating across the driveway with him in a sloppy duet. “Got a late start. Had some work—”

An explosion rocked the night, a blown transformer shooting sparks into the black sky.

“Aah!” Bailey slipped and lost her footing.

He grabbed her. Bobbled.

And they both went down.

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