Moving slowly, Katie made her way to the time clock to punch out and then went to collect her purse from the drawer. Her mood was a little blue, and she wasn’t sure why. Outside the window, she spied Betty and Parker holding Gabe’s hand and swinging her high every few feet or so. Their laughter floated up, taunting her on a breeze. She sagged against the sill, wishing more than anything she were playing Pinochle with them tonight. She clutched her purse to her chest, suddenly missing them all.
With acute frustration, she threw back her shoulders and stood up straight, desperate to shake this unsettled feeling. “What’s the matter with me?” she muttered under her breath, completely baffled by her melancholy mood.
Could it be the weekend, she wondered, the fact that all of her friends would be out while she was confined? And yet, thoughts of Jack and the gang left her surprisingly cold. With a deep sigh, she pressed her forehead to the window screen and closed her eyes, reluctant to leave and go home. And then it came to her, as light and firm as the screen against her skin. She was lonely, she suddenly realized. Lonely for the closeness that Betty and Parker and Luke all shared, lonely for their friendship, for the sense of family they created . . . lonely for . . . Luke?
She sucked in a harsh breath, the thought seizing her with a cold wave of fear. No! She listed against the windowsill, her mind glazed with shock. Not him, please, God, no . . . It was just attraction and nothing more.
She closed her eyes and put her face in her hand, seeing beyond the handsome face and heart-melting grin. In one short month, the bane of her past had become the haunt of her present, drawing her to him like he drew everyone else. A magnet of a man who was warm and kind and giving . . . and, she swallowed hard . . . incredibly poor.
Her purse slipped to the floor, but Katie could only stand with her hand to her mouth while panic struck deep in the pit of her stomach. She bit her lip hard. She would not do this, she vowed. She would not fall in love with a man who was not part of her plan. She needed Jack—a man with ambition and political connections, someone who not only supported her dream of championing women’s causes, but whose wealth and family could help her achieve it. She put a shaky hand to her eyes and expelled a jagged breath, quite certain that would never be Luke—a man shackled to the streets and content to stay there.
“Katie, are you okay?” Luke loosened his tie and stared, concern creasing his brow as he watched her, her body slumped at the window with a hand to her eyes. She didn’t move, and the tightness in his gut increased. He approached quietly, afraid he would startle her. “Katie?”
“Oh!” She whirled around, staggering against the sill with a hand to her chest.
He clutched her arm to steady her, and the color drained from her cheeks. Softening his hold, he absently grazed her skin with his thumb, then ducked his head and smiled, eyes tender as he studied her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. Are you all right?”
She nodded stiffly, her gaze glued to the massive hand on her arm.
Worry wrinkled the bridge of his nose and he braced both palms on her shoulders, convinced something was wrong. Her face was white and her breathing labored, and he could swear he felt a hint of a tremble. “No, I can feel it. Something’s bothering you.” He pressed his hand to her forehead. “Are you sick?”
She jerked back from his hold and butted up against the window, arms crossed and hugging her waist. “No!” she said too quickly to suit him, clearly avoiding his eyes. “I mean maybe a little dizzy, but nothing serious. I just need to go home . . .”
He shifted, suddenly concerned it had to do with him. He plunged his hands in his pockets and softened his tone. “Katie . . . is it me? Did I say or do something to upset you?”
She shook her head, gaze bonded to the floor. “No, Luke, really, please, I just need to—”
He nudged her chin up with his thumb, and her lips parted with a sharp intake of breath. And then he saw it. The gentle rise and fall of her chest, the soft rose in her cheeks, the skittish look in her eyes, flitting to his lips and then quickly away. Comprehension suddenly oozed through him like heated honey purling through his veins. Could it be? Was it possible that cold, callous Katie O’Connor was beginning to warm up? To him, of all people—Cluny McGee, the leper from her past? The thought sent warm ripples of shock through his body, thinning the air in his lungs. His gaze gentled, taking in the vulnerability in her eyes, the fear in her face, and all he wanted to do was hold her, reassure her.
As if under a spell, his gaze was drawn to her lips, parted and full, and the sound of her shallow breathing filled him with a fierce longing. “Oh, Katie,” he whispered, no power over the pull he was suddenly feeling. In slow motion, he bent toward her, closing his eyes to caress her mouth with his own. A weak gasp escaped her as she stiffened, but he couldn’t relent. The taste of her lips was far more than he bargained for, and he drew her close with a raspy groan. With a fierce hold, he cupped the back of her neck and kissed her deeply, gently, possessive in his touch. His fingers twined in her hair, desperate to explore.
And then all at once, beyond his comprehension, her body melded to his with an answering groan, and he was shocked when her mouth rivaled his with equal demand. Desire licked through him, searing his body and then his conscience. With a heated shudder, he gripped her arms and pushed her back, his breathing ragged as he held her at bay.
“We can’t do this,” he whispered. He dropped his hold and exhaled, gouging shaky fingers through disheveled hair. His gaze returned, capturing hers and riddled with regret. “Believe me, Katie, as much as I want to, I’ve learned the hard way to take things slow. I should have never started this, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Forgive him? She stared at him through glazed eyes, her pulse still pumping in her veins at a ridiculous rate. She never wanted this, couldn’t stand the sight of him, and now here she was, tingling from his touch and desperate for more. Addicted to the “King of Misery.” The very thought inflamed both fury and desire at the same time, muddling her mind. Dear Lord, she was torn between welding her lips to his or slapping him silly. With a tight press of her mouth, she opted for the second and smacked him clean across the face.
His jaw dropped a full inch, complemented nicely by a slash of red across his cheek.
Her chest was heaving, but at least it wasn’t from his touch. She narrowed her eyes and clutched her fists at her side, not all that sure she wouldn’t slap him again. “So help me, if you ever touch me again, you will be the sorriest person alive.”
He slowly rubbed his cheek with the side of his hand, exercising his jaw as if to make sure it still worked. His eyes glinted like blue glass, sharp and deadly. Even so, the swaggering smile of old eased across his face. He bent forward, his tall frame looming over her like a bad omen, and his voice held that cocky drawl so reminiscent of his past. “What’s the matter, Katie Rose,” he whispered, “does my touch make you nervous?”
The heat in her cheeks went straight to her temper. She iced him with a cool gaze. “Nervous? Around you? Hardly. You can dress up in a suit all you like, Luke McGee, but to me you’ll always be the same cocky street brat with a twang in your voice and grime on your face.”
She knew her words hit their mark when a red blotch crawled up the back of his neck like a rash gone awry. A nerve pulsed in his temple, but his smile never wavered despite the steel edge of his jaw. One blond brow jagged high in challenge. “Is that a fact? Well then, how about a little experiment? Kind of like when you were eleven and I bet you couldn’t be nice?” He leaned close, his voice as hard as his eyes. “What d’ya bet I can make you nervous now?”
She tried to shove him out of the way. “I’m going home.”
“Not yet,” he whispered, blocking her in with a push to the wall. His voice, like the dominance of his hold, was a force to be reckoned with. “You always packed a wallop for a little girl, Katydid, but this time you picked the wrong street brat. You can turn your nose up at me all you want, but we both know that slap wasn’t so much about an innocent kiss . . .” He bent close, his eyes on fire and the scent of peppermint hot against her face. “As how it made you feel.”
His words seemed to vibrate through her, low and thick in the air. She shuddered, and the force of his savage look trapped all protest in her throat.
“To you I’ll always be riffraff, something vulgar and crude. Well, welcome to my world, Miss O’Connor. And, please, let me show you how we do it on the ‘streets.’ Because if I’m going to take a beating, you can bet your bottom dollar on two things for sure. One—I’m going to get my money’s worth.” A dangerous smile surfaced as his gaze focused on her lips. “And two . . .” His mouth hovered just above hers while his voice trailed to a whisper. “I’m gonna make you real nervous in the process.”
In a catch of her breath, he took her mouth by force, his late-day beard rough against her skin. A faint moan escaped her lips and all resistance fled, burned away by the heat of his touch, leaving her weak and wanting. His mouth roamed at will, no longer gentle as he devoured her, ravenous against the smooth curve of her throat, the soft flesh of her ear. With a guttural groan, he jerked her close with powerful arms, consuming her mouth with a kiss surely driven by the sheer will to ravage.
And then in a frantic beat of her heart, he shoved her away. She gasped, numb as she thudded against the wall. His chest was heaving and his eyes were hard, focused on her with cool disregard. “There. Now that makes two of the sorriest people alive.” He grabbed her purse from the floor and threw it on her desk, then rubbed his mouth with the side of his hand. “Better run home, Katydid. God knows the riffraff that roam the street this time of night.”
He turned and walked into his office, slamming the door hard.
She stared, her body still quivering from his rage. Closing her eyes, she sagged against the wall, too stunned to move and too shaken to care. She pressed a trembling hand to her mouth, her lips swollen from the taste of him. She was doomed, she realized, and the thought shivered through her like a cold chill. She wanted a man she didn’t really want, and the very notion weakened her at the knees. He had called her one of the sorriest people alive. She grappled for her purse and put a hand to her eyes.
And God help her, she was.