In her life as a covert agent, Rhea Stevenson had done a lot of things she hated: cozy up to cold-blooded killers, make goo-goo eyes at drug lords, pretend to be a Russian mail-order bride, walk unarmed in a low-cut, almost nonexistent dress into a nuclear arms deal.
But nothing in all her years as an agent had ever prepared her to do...
"You want me to do what?" she asked Tee, the managing director of the Bureau of American Defense, or BAD as it was known to most of the people who worked there.
A shadow antiterrorism agency that most of the country didn't even know existed, BAD had a lot of "interesting" people in it, and Tee was definitely one of the more colorful characters. At five feet even, Tee shouldn't have been intimidating at all, and yet the small, beautiful Vietnamese-American woman held a look to her that let anyone know she was far deadlier than any cobra.
And she was.
Tee gave her a flat, emotionless stare. "You're going to be a dominatrix."
Rhea couldn't do anything more than gape as she heard male laughter from the desk in the office cube across from hers.
Her gaze narrowed as a bad feeling came over her. "And whose bright idea was this?"
Ace rolled his chair back so that he could look from the entrance of his cube into hers. He smiled at her like the Cheshire cat.
"Oh, no, no, no," Rhea said firmly as she handed the file folder back to Tee. "Not on your life. Let Agent Hotshot over there go in with studded leather and whips. Then the deviants can hang together."
Ace, who really was sexier than any man had a right to be, gave her a hot once-over. "I can't, love. I don't have the ass for it. But you on the other hand..." His dark blue gaze dipped down to her hips and his smile turned lecherous as if he was imagining cupping her derriere.
Rhea wasn't sure what she hated most, the boldness of that look or the way her body reacted to it. And yet her body always betrayed her with this man. She'd never understood how a woman could be both repulsed and turned on at the same time.
Surely something was seriously wrong with her.
"Is this not sexual harassment?" she asked Tee, even though a part of her was humming in excitement. "You know, I do have friends in the EEOC."
Tee looked rather amused by her question. "'Well, in this case, Ace is right. We need a female agent to pose, and Ace thought you'd be the best one for it."
Rhea directed a gimlet stare at him. "I'll just bet he did."
Ace got up and sauntered toward them to stand in the cube's doorway. At six-two, he towered over Tee. The look on his handsome face was that of a kid at Christmas. An image that was helped by his tousled, dark blond hair and teasing, blue eyes.
He cast a devilish grin at Rhea. "Ah, just think, Rhea. You...me...chains and whips...Recipe for a hot night, huh?"
Recipe for a disaster in her opinion. "Recipe for a nightmare, you mean. I wouldn't do this for all the money on the planet. Sorry, Tee, get yourself another agent for this."
Tee sighed irritably. "We need you, Rhea, you're the only one in the home office who fits the profile. Put aside your personal distaste and work with Ace just this once."
"I am not going to take my clothes off around him even if I do get the benny of beating him."
Arching a brow, he folded his arms over his chest. "But would you do it to stop a known terrorist?"
Rhea paused at his words. That was her one hot button, and everyone in the agency knew it. They just didn't know why. The reason was private and personal, but she had spent her entire adulthood on a crusade to stop such needless violence. That one word could get her to do anything.
Even take her clothes off around Ace Krux, male god, personal demon.
"That's another reason we thought you would be perfect," Tee said solemnly. "We all know how you feel."
No, they truly didn't. Rhea took the file back. "Do I have to work with Ace?"
Tee shrugged. "It's his baby. He's been working on the case for a year now and knows all the ins and outs."
"Don't worry, Rhea," he said. "You'll feel differently after you see me naked."
She snorted at that. "Yeah, someone remind me that I better bring along gallons of Pepto-Bismol, an industrial bottle of Tums, and some bicarbonate."
Ace rolled his yes. "Yeah, right. Like you wouldn't sell your soul for a shot at me."
Rhea pulled her weapon out from the holster at her back, then ejected and checked her clip. "You got that much right." She slammed the clip back in and switched the safety off. "You want a ten-second head start or can I just shoot you now?"
Tee shook her head at Ace. "Why must you always torment her? One day, she really is going to shoot you and I just might authorize it." Tee turned back to her with a warning stare. "Put it away, Rhea."
Grumbling, she reactivated the safety and complied.
"Ah, she wouldn't shoot me anyway, Tee. She's just covering her infatuation for me by being a hard-ass."
Rhea stood up to confront him. "You know, Ace, you're not nearly as irresistible as you think you are."
"Sure, and just how many times have you dreamed about having me naked and in your bed?"
Rhea counted to ten in her head and forced herself not to rise to his baiting. But the worst part of it all was that he was right. She did find him physically attractive, but the minute he opened his mouth, she wanted to gag him.
"Oh, yeah," she said sarcastically. "You set my entire world on fire. Oh, baby; oh, baby. I must have your hot bod. Why don't we just strip naked and do it right here in the cube?"
Hunter Wesley Thornton-Payne stuck his handsome, albeit pompous, blond head up over the wall of the cube beside Rhea's. "Jeez, people. Could you cut the crap? You know some of us are actually trying to work over here."
"Since when do you work on anything other than your stock portfolio, Payne?" Carlos Selgado asked in his accented voice as he popped up over Rhea's other wall to glare at Hunter. "Some of us are enjoying the fireworks."
"My name is Thornton-Payne," Hunter corrected.
Ignoring him as he always did, Carlos looked over at Tee. "If Rhea is really going to get naked, can I bump off Ace and take over his case?"
Tee gave them all a withering glare. "Agents, down, or there will be a vicious virus that attacks the payroll system and locks you all out of the loop. It's called the Pissed-off Tee Virus and it could make it so that none of you get paid for at least six weeks...maybe more."
Carlos and Hunter immediately vanished.
Tee turned back to Rhea and Ace. "You two, play nice."
Rhea scoffed. "Play nice? I'd rather pet a scorpion, bare-handed."
That devilish grin returned to Ace's face as he raked her with an appreciative stare. "I'll show you my stinger if you'll show me yours."
She screwed her face up in disgust. The man was truly a reprobate.
"Hey, Carlos," he called, "you used to do a lot of work with scorpions. How do they mate, anyway? You know they got those stingers and claws and -- "
"Enough with the mating rituals of scorpions," Rhea said from between clenched teeth. "Why don't we discuss the praying mantis instead? You know, the female rips the head off the male. She's a wise woman."
Ace wagged his eyebrows at her. "Yeah, but what a way to go, huh? If you've got to die, it's always best to go out with a good bang."
Tee cast a withering stare at them. "Yo, Marlin Perkins and crew, let's get back on topic here."
Ace leaned nonchalantly against Rhea's desk and folded his arms over his chest. "Okay, we'll get back on the subject now and save the banging for later."
Rhea just continued to glare at him. This was one of those times when she really hated this man.
But then Thadeus "Ace" Krux was a man of many talents. He could scale a building in a manner to make Spider-Man proud. He could drive better and faster than Jeff Gordon and Mario Andretti combined. He could construct a lethal bomb from an empty Coke bottle, a piece of tissue, and simple household cleaners.
Most of all, he could render any woman on the planet speechless at first glance.
It was a hell of a combination that was deadly to any woman's defenses. He had the sleek, seductive movements of a beast in the wild. The smile of Don Juan and the intelligence of Einstein, all of which was packaged into the body of a Bowflex ad model.
He was the epitome of everything she found desirable in the male species....
And everything she despised.
His calm, cool, rationality bordered on dispassionate. His arrogance knew no bounds, and his ego...
Someone really needed to take him down a few notches.
Since he seemed to live for no other purpose than to torment her, he was completely distracting to her peace of mind.
"So has she racked him yet?" Joe asked as he joined them.
Barely in his thirties, Joe was young to hold the position of senior director for such an important agency, and yet Rhea couldn't think of anyone more suited to controlling the motley, often illegal bunch that made up the BAD task force.
For all his youth and handsomeness, Joe was even more lethal than Tee. He never compromised, never took prisoners. Something that was at odds with his pretty-boy features.
He had on a black leather shoulder holster with the ivory handle of a .38 Special peeking up (Joe had once said he liked being cliché on the surface), but it was the stiletto he kept strapped to his calf that he was most famous for using (that was for the surprises he liked to give after someone mistook him for cliché).
rHis shoulder-length, dark brown hair was worn in a ponytail, and for once he had the sleeves of his blue dress shirt rolled up to show off the telltale colors of the dragon tattoo he had on his left forearm -- a remnant Rhea had once been told by Tee of the days when Joe was a member of a vicious New York street gang.
"Does this mean I have your permission to rack him?" Rhea asked Joe.
Joe gave Ace an amused smirk.
Ace snorted. "I don't think so. Remember, I do know where you live and sleep."
"Yeah, but not even you could get past my security system."
Joe was probably right. His specialty was wiring and demolition work. He could booby-trap just about anything. It was a special talent that Rhea couldn't imagine a New York City boy acquiring legally.
"So who are we after, anyway?" she asked, opening her folder.
"Lucius Bender," Ace said. "Ever heard of him?"
Rhea nodded. Of course she had. It was a case she'd been begging Joe for, and why he'd assigned it to Ace she couldn't imagine. She was twice the agent he was. At least she was when it came to research and reconnaissance. When it came to physical case execution, Ace had her beat only because the man had a flagrant disregard for human life, especially his own.
"He arms a lot of the West Bank terrorists," she said.
"Yeah," Ace agreed. "I've been aching to nail this bastard since I worked for the Secret Service and one of his flunkies made an attempt on the president's life, but he's slippery as hell and we haven't been able to pin anything on him. The IFT just told us that a few days ago the German authorities picked up his favorite dominatrix, who they've had under surveillance for contraband. Now the brothel she worked in is looking for a replacement."
"And I'm the replacement?" Rhea asked.
Joe reached into her folder and pulled out the most recent photo of the bald, unattractive, middle-aged man for her inspection. "The GA have a bug in Ute's cell where she's been talking with other cellmates about Bender's odd habits. Seems he likes to talk a lot during his beatings, and one of the things he brags about is how many terrorist acts he's either funded or committed. He has a thing for women who look like Bettie Page, so we want to send you in as Latex Bettie, his newest toy. You go into a wired room, get him to confess, and then we come in with the GA and arrest him."
It sounded simple enough. Too simple in fact, and nothing was ever that simple.
"All I have to do is beat him?" Rhea asked suspiciously.
"He's a real fucked-up bastard," Ace said as he showed her another photograph of Bender at a party with a dark-haired, Bettie Page-looking girl who couldn't be any more than fifteen...and that was stretching it.
"Okay. If this will get him off the street, then hand me the thong and stiletto heels."
"You're killing me, Rhea," Carlos said from the other side of the wall.
Rhea huffed audibly at the comment. "Go to work, Carlos."
"Joe?" he called over the wall. "I want a transfer to Ace's case."
"Why, Carlos?" Joe asked. "You aching to wear high heels and a woman's thong?"
Rhea cleared her throat to get Joe's attention. "So how do we prep this?" she asked.
Ace smiled. "Me and you are meeting with a coach to learn about bondage and dominance. You're going to be the mistress and I get to be your slave." He looked to be enjoying this way too much.
"You really are a perv, aren't you? Admit it?"
Joe rubbed his head as if they were starting to give him a migraine. "Since the two of you are going to be extremely intimate over the next few days, why don't you leave early and have dinner together tonight so you can discuss the case and get to know each other before you actually get naked."
Now she was the one developing a migraine at the prospect of what this assignment entailed. "Thanks, Joe," she said sarcastically.
"Anytime, Rhea. Hell, I'll even let the two of you put it on the company card."
She gave him a droll look. "You're just so damned generous."
Ace indicated the way to the door with a tilt of his head. "Are we taking him up on it, Rhea?"
Rhea took a deep breath as she fought an urge to run in the other direction, but this wasn't about her and Ace and his obnoxiousness. It was about stopping a cold-blooded killer who didn't care whom he hurt.
For that, she was willing to do anything. Even put up with the most arrogant male in existence.
She looked at Tee. "I do get to beat Ace, right?"
"He'll be your slave for training. I say make him cry for mercy."
Ace looked completely undaunted by the prospect. "Beat me, hurt me, call me Ralph."
"Yeah, call you Ralph. I'll be lucky if I don't 'ralph' from the sight of you naked all right."
"Ooo," Ace said in an appreciative tone. "Swift on the uptake, Stevenson. I'm impressed."
Before she could respond, Ace returned to his cube and grabbed his jacket. Rhea went ahead and shut down her computer while Joe headed back to his office.
Tee opened up the folder again and sorted through the papers until she found one in particular, which she handed to Rhea. "This is the dossier for Bender. Memorize it while you learn to beat the crap out of him."
A distinct, evil glimmer in her eye said Tee would enjoy being in Rhea's position. "If you want this so badly, why aren't you doing it?"
"Because he doesn't have a thing for short Vietnamese women. Wish that he did though."
"Me too. The thought of going in, in nothing but a teddy doesn't appeal to me."
"Don't worry. We'll cover you."
And they would too. BAD always took care of her own. "I know."
Tee stepped back as Ace rejoined them.
"You two have a nice night and get friendly." Tee handed a small business card to Rhea. "First thing in the morning, I'm having the instructor meet you at your house where I'm sure you'll feel a little more comfortable. In the meantime, I want you two to get into character early. This is the address for an adult store here in Nashville. Head over and stock up on toys."
Ace gave that wicked grin of his as he gave Rhea a once-over that made her stomach tight. "I'm definitely up for it."
Rhea was completely unamused by his humor. "You better be down for it."
She took the card from Tee, then looked up at Ace. "You are really enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Absolutely. So what's first?" Ace asked playfully as he took a step toward her. "Dinner or sex?"
He took the card from her hand, letting his fingers brush hers in a warm caress, and smiled like a wolf in sheep's clothing. "C'mon, Rhea. Have you ever been to an adult store before?"
Hardly. Kinky sex had never appealed to her at all, and she'd heard enough tales from her odder friends to know she had no interest in haunting adult stores for the aids they provided. "Have you?"
He looked completely unrepentant. "I'll plead the Fifth to that."
"I knew you were a pervert."
"Hey, it's not my fault the customers took me along whenever my dad made them watch me."
Rhea shook her head as Ace stepped back, then led the way from their offices toward the elevator bank.
Ace's father, Alister Cross, was a renowned director who had won several Academy Awards. Ace's grandfather, Osker Krux, owned one of the largest movie studios in the world, and Ace's younger brother was an Academy Award-winning special FX guru. Ace himself had once been a stunt double before he'd gone on to work for the Secret Service.
"You know, I've never understood why you're a BAD agent anyway. Why didn't you follow your family's business?"
He shrugged. "Movies are boring. Actors are fake and I figured if I wanted to live my life on the edge, I might as well be doing it for real. Why take a chance on dying from a blank gone bad when I can dodge real bullets intended to kill me and save the world?"
In a weird way that made sense to her, and she actually managed a grudging respect for him.
"What about you?" he asked as they waited on the elevator. "What made a respectable CIA agent follow Joe to a shadow agency that has no known ally?"
"I respect the hell out of Joe and Tee and their agenda, and I didn't like all the rules of the CIA." That's what BAD was best at. No rules to bind their hands. Each agent was licensed as a civilian contractor. They were funded under the Treasury Department and hidden away as a federal insurance agency, which in an ironic way they really were. Only "insurance" took on a whole new meaning for them.
In reality, they were an antiterrorism special task force that no one other than the president knew about. The individual agents answered to Joe, and he answered to the head man alone.
No one else knew they existed and they all liked it that way.
The elevator doors opened.
Ace stood back to let her enter first. She didn't speak again until they were enclosed inside and he'd pressed the button for the lobby.
"Besides," she said, continuing their conversation, "I like the different kinds of agents we have. You guys are a lot more fun than the other agencies."
He laughed at that. "Yeah, we're not your average crew."
Rhea smiled as she watched Ace from the corner of her eye. Even though he worked her last nerve into an apoplexy, she had to admit he was incredibly sexy standing there with his hands in his pockets while he looked up at the floor numbers overhead. Something about him was absolutely irresistible.
Too bad he knew it.
His presence was mammoth in the elevator, or then again, anywhere. He was one of those rare men who possessed an aura that was intense and all-encompassing.
As much as she had tried to stay angry at him for his pomposity, there had always been a tiny part of her that was attracted to him. A really tiny part.
When he was silent and serious, he was actually breathtaking, which had always made her wonder just how many hearts he'd left broken.
"So tell me, Ace. When was the last time you went out with a woman on a date?"
He looked at her. "A real date or an I'm-pretending-to-be-someone-else-and-am-prying-you-for-information date?"
"A real date."
He let out a low whistle. "Probably a year. What about you?"
She sighed wistfully at the painful truth. "Three years, at least."
"Yeah," he said with a sigh. "Our job doesn't exactly lend itself to dating, does it?"
"No. I'm never sure what to say when they ask me what I do for a living. Most guys are heavily intimidated by the thought of dating a federal agent."
He snorted at that. "I tell women I'm a federal agent and they laugh and think I'm handing them a line. So I usually make up bullshit about being a salesman or something."
The door opened. Rhea walked across the lobby as she continued to smile while thinking of Ace in a bar with some giggling woman who had no idea just what the man was capable of. He was incredible in the field. He could speak a dozen languages fluently and held no fear of anything.
While in the Secret Service, he'd been shot three times and had brought countless criminals to trial. She was actually amazed that Joe had been able to pry Ace loose from their clutches. He'd been a celebrated hero to his group.
"You want to ride with me?" he asked.
She shook her head vigorously no. "You can ride with me. I've seen the way you drive."
"What?" he asked, his face a mask of innocence. "I have a perfect driving record."
"Only because you charmed your way out of the last three tickets you got," she reminded him.
"Those were minor speeding offenses."
"Sure they were. And I'm a three-armed alien."
Her words seemed to only amuse him. "Fine, Cha-Cha. You drive."
She frowned. "Cha-Cha? As in Shirley 'Cha-Cha' Muldowney?"
"You know racing?" he asked as if surprised by her knowledge.
Rhea nodded. It wasn't something she ever really mentioned to anyone, but then the topic seldom came up. "Are you kidding? She's the first and only female Top Fuel Champion in NHRA history. When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. My father was an old friend of her crew chief Connie Kalitta, and I actually have her autograph. Oh, I love that woman!"
"Then why is it you now drive like an old lady?"
She scoffed at that. "Old lady, nothing. I can J-turn a bulletproof Lincoln limo with the best of them."
Ace chuckled at her reference to agent training where they all learned how to handle a variety of vehicles under stressful circumstances. One in particular that all BAD agents had to pass was the ability to jump into anything available and drive it out of any possible danger including heavy artillery fire, grenade and bomb attacks.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You still drive far too cautiously for my tastes."
Rhea shivered at the unexpected sensation of his breath on her skin and did her best not to think of other, much more intimate things that would cause him to be so near her.
And she had the distinct impression that he wasn't really talking about the way she handled a car.
Unwilling to go there, she led him to the parking deck where she had her red Mustang parked.
Ace didn't say anything as they got in and headed out.
"Do we really have to go to the sex shop?" she asked, even though she knew the answer.
"That depends. You got any whips and chains at home? And if you do, I will definitely have to change my opinion about what Agent Rhea Stevenson does on her days off."
Rhea groaned. "The only chain I have is the small gold one around my neck, and as for whips...Do half-empty containers of Cool Whip count?"
"It does for what I have in mind."
She let out a tired breath. "Does everything I say to you have to do with sex?"
"Since you're supposed to dominate me, baby, yeah."
Ace watched her stony face while she wove her way through traffic in a much more sedate way than he would have.
Rhea was a hot woman with a cool exterior that he'd wanted to melt for quite some time. But then business and pleasure didn't mix well. He knew that better than anyone and yet he couldn't help wondering what the petite brunette would taste like.
What those lean, supple limbs would feel like wrapped around his.
She was beautiful. Not so much in her looks, but in the way she could make him feel better by doing nothing more than smiling at him. She was extremely quiet and seldom said much even when her phone rang.
While in the CIA, she was supposed to have been one of their best field agents.
But in the last three years since BAD had come together, she hadn't taken many field assignments. Most of her work was done online, making Ace wonder what she'd be like undercover.
In more ways than one.
He'd always had a theory that silent, quiet women were much more uninhibited in bed. But since he hadn't known that many who were quiet, he'd never been able to test his theory.
She glanced over at him. "What are you thinking?"
Ace fell back into his standard male reply. "Nothing."
"Nothing? Then why do you look like the cat eyeballing the canary?"
He gave a wicked grin at that. "Okay, so I was thinking of you dressed in black leather, wielding a whip over my naked ass."
She didn't look at him as she made a left turn. "I think I like 'nothing' better."
"Excuse me?" he asked, stunned and excited at her words. "You really want to whip my naked ass?"
"No!" she snapped sharply. "I said I like 'nothing' better, not I'd like nothing better. Oh, jeez, Ace, grow up!"
He continued to smile at her, which was something he didn't do around many people. There was just something about her that attracted him against all common sense or reason.
pardNot even he fully understood his incessant need to tease her. Other than the fact that he thoroughly enjoyed her snappy comebacks and the way those brown eyes would flash at him whenever he made her angry. It was almost as sexy as foreplay.
"I figured you would, which is why I said 'nothing' to begin with."
She slid a censoring look to him. "I can't believe I'm going to do this."
"You? I'm the practice slave. I think if anyone should be embarrassed, it should be me."
Rhea glanced at him as she pulled into the parking lot of the large blue building covered in triple X's that had no windows whatsoever. "Look, Ace, it's your home away from home."
Rhea stood in the doorway of the adult novelty store as total horror engulfed her. She'd never seen anything like this in her entire life. Cages were set up in the corners with mannequins dressed and chained in the most sexually graphic manner imaginable. Did people really use this stuff?
She paused next to a display of penis-shaped suckers and scowled at them.
"What's wrong?" Ace asked as he brushed past her into the store.
It was all she could do not to gape. "Where do I begin?"
He shrugged nonchalantly as if missing her point. "Well, we could begin with one of the swings over there."
Rhea couldn't help gaping now as he pointed to something that looked as if it had come from the planet Porno. The large, black contraption held a spread-eagled female mannequin completely subdued and gagged.
Unwilling to let him know she was bothered by it, she quickly recovered her facial expression and paused at the display of leather blindfolds and masks that were covered in spikes.
"Can I help you?"
Rhea actually jumped at the sound of the shaky female voice behind her. She turned to see an elderly woman with white hair and black-rimmed glasses staring at her. Jeez, it was someone's grandma! She even had the black SAS shoes and a white dress with little, dark blue flowers that matched her dark blue sweater. She looked kind and frail.
Why on earth would she be here working as a porn store clerk?
The older woman laughed and lightly patted her arm. "This must be your first time, sweetie. Just relax and have fun. Don't let me worry you, I've tried most everything in here, so if you have any questions, please let me know."
Grandma smiled as she watched Ace. "Well, you're a lucky woman to have that for a playmate. Why, he's simply delish."
Delish? Grandma knew delish?
Okay, I'm in an episode of Twilight Zone with Grandma as the zookeeper. Just go with it, Rhea.
Grandma continued to study him. "You know, he reminds me of my dearly departed Herbert. Oh, hon, he was the best. He just lived for sex. Would throw himself into it anywhere, anytime. In fact, we once got arrested for indecency on a subway while we were in New York."
This was way too much information.
"Have you two been arrested yet?"
"No," Rhea answered quickly and honestly. At least she hadn't been. With Ace...well, she wouldn't make a bet on it.
"Then you two ain't doing it right." Grandma winked at her.
Grandma was without a doubt the most frightening thing in this store.
"Oh, you'll like those," Grandma said to Ace, who had paused two aisles over. "The strawberry are the best, though my Herbert liked the lemon-flavored."
Rhea looked to find Ace examining packages of edible panties. She inwardly cringed as he inspected them. "Don't even think it, Ace."
He held up one of the packages. "They have grape." Then he looked to Grandma. "You ever try these?"
"The grape isn't the best. They have a bit of a bitter taste to them."
Ace put them back. "You said to try the strawberry?"
Rhea's gaze narrowed as he picked up a package. Fine. Two people could play that. "You also have whips, right?" she asked the woman.
"Do you have nice, spiked ones?"
"No!" Ace said, putting down the panties and moving back toward Rhea. "No spiked nothing."
She arched a brow. "I can't believe I've finally found something to make the big, bad Ace craven. What on earth could make you fear spikes?"
"A Goth girlfriend in high school who left lasting scars on my flesh. I don't ever want to cozy up to another porcupine as long as I live."
Rhea was amazed he'd admitted that. "You went out with a Goth chick? How unlike you."
"Not really. I always had a thing for women in leather." He looked meaningfully at a mannequin dressed in an extremely revealing leather corset that left its breasts bare except for two tiny leather pasties.
The expression on his face said he was picturing her in that getup.
Rhea decided to play fire with fire. Determined, she walked over to the rack of leather Speedos, which would have to be laughable on any male no matter how sexy or fabulous he was. She picked up one that was of a thong design and looked back at Ace, who grimaced.
"Trust me, baby, that would be like trying to cover two bowling balls with a slingshot."
"Oh, that's disgusting!"
He flashed her one of those taunting smiles. "But it makes you curious, doesn't it?"
She hated to admit it, but he'd won this round. "No, it just makes me pity whatever woman ends up permanently shackled to you. Do womankind a favor, Ace, get neutered."
"Oh, no, honey," Grandma said. "No one should neuter something as fine as him. Take my word for it. I've seen lots of handsome men in my day, but yours...He's definitely worth keeping around."
"See, she likes me."
Rhea bit her tongue to keep from saying Ace should train Grandma for Bender. But rule one was never to disclose an agent's mission to an unknown no matter how harmless he or she appeared. Words could kill even faster and more effectively than a handgun.
Rhea took a deep breath and looked around. "So what appeals to you, Ace?"
He picked up a jar of chocolate body paint that even came with its own paintbrush and came to stand next to her. In that moment, there was something extremely compelling about him and the soft way he was looking at her. "Rhea al dente."
An unexpected shiver went over her and she knew it was caused by the hot, seductive curve of his mouth. Ace Krux was a man to be reckoned with.
"If you like that, we have a sample," Grandma said as she brushed past Ace.
She went to the shelf and opened a tester jar, then took a white, plastic spoon and ladled out a bit of chocolate into a small plastic cup.
When Rhea reached for it, she pulled the cup back. "Give me your finger."
Before Rhea could really comply, the old woman took Rhea's finger, dipped it in the chocolate, and held it up for Ace to sample. He didn't hesitate to open his mouth and capture her.
Rhea's stomach fluttered as his warm, sensuous tongue encircled the pad of her fingertip while he held her hand in his to keep it in his mouth. He nipped her flesh ever so gently with his teeth while he stared at her with a hot, needful look. His masculine scent of aftershave and shampoo filled her head, making her heart pound.
Never in her life had she been so unexpectedly turned on by any man. This was intrusive and rude and...and she was dying to know what his lips would taste like.
Get a grip!
Rhea pulled her finger out. "I hope you've had a rabies shot lately."
He laughed at that, then dipped his finger into the cup. "Your turn."
"That is so not sanitary."
Rhea couldn't believe he was relying on the childhood tactic. Even worse, she couldn't believe it was working. She wasn't about to let Mr. Perfect Agent get away with it.
It was time Mr. Krux learned a lesson.
Taking his hand into hers, she opened his palm and blew her breath across it. She gave him her best "do me, hotshot" stare before she licked the palm of his hand and took the entire length of his finger into her mouth.
Ace ground his teeth to keep from cursing in blissful agony the instant she started tonguing his finger. That woman had a tongue that poets should write about.
At the very least it deserved a major letter to Penthouse Forum.
Every hormone in his body fired as his cock hardened to the point of pain. And with every tiny, erotic stroke of her tongue, he hardened even more.
She growled low in her throat before she took a gentle bite of his skin, then pulled back. "Hershey's is better."
Ace was completely dumbstruck. Since all of his blood had drained to the center of his body, there wasn't much left to understand her words. He only knew she'd stepped away from him and that was the last thing he wanted.
In fact, the only thing he wanted right then was to take her into his arms and taste that sweet, sassy mouth. To pin her to the wall behind her and sate the painful ache in his groin that wanted nothing more than to be naked and sweaty with her.
Rhea was a lot more turned on by what she'd done than she wanted to admit. The truth was, Ace had tasted wonderful. And the look on his face as she tasted him was branded into her consciousness. Her breasts were still swollen and heavy from desire.
How could she be attracted to him? Yeah, he looked great, but he was a pest.
Trying to distract herself, she strolled down an aisle with the most incredibly odd vibrators she'd ever seen. Some of them looked like penises and some of them just looked weird. One in particular had two penises pointing away from each other.
Tilting her head to study it, Rhea paused and frowned.
Ace gave a low, amused laugh as he came up behind her. He was so close, she could actually feel the heat from his body. Feel the intensity of his presence. He might as well be touching her for all the damage he was doing to her willpower.
"You really haven't ever been in one of these stores before have you?" he asked her.
She shook her head. "I had no idea that these" -- she gestured toward the myriad of battery-operated boyfriends -- "came in so many shapes, colors, or textures. Good grief. Do people really use these?"
As his body brushed against her, she could feel his taut erection. He'd been right. He was a large man, and the thought of that electrified her as he reached for one of the illicit packages. "Yeah, they do, at least I know they use them in porn flicks."
She gave him an arched, censoring look.
He actually looked offended. "What? My cousin Vito produces porn films for a small, independent studio. Much to the horror of my grandparents, he talks about it at every Christmas party."
Relieved more than she wanted to admit, she shook her head. "You have the strangest family."
"And you've spent as much time in Beverly Hills as you've spent in adult stores if you believe that. Trust me, where I grew up, my family were the most normal ones on the block."
"And now I know why I've never made it a habit to frequent either place." Rhea folded her arms over her chest. "So what exactly will I need for this...excursion?"
Ace returned the "item" in his hand to the shelf. "I vote we ease our way into this. For one thing, no gags, since gagging Bender would defeat the purpose of getting him to talk."
"That makes sense."
Ace headed over two aisles to where they had a display of restraints. "Something simple. Handcuffs."
Rhea studied the variety of manacles they had. An unbidden image of Ace spread out naked on her bed flashed through her mind, and in spite of what she would ever admit, she had to say it was an incredible thought.
Oh, jeez, don't make him right! He would be flattered to no end to know that you really are picturing him naked.
"Some of this stuff looks like it ought to be illegal," she said, trying to distract herself again.
Ace shrugged. "Personally, I'm not into the rough stuff, but there are all kinds out there."
"I'm just glad I'm not one of them and that I'm licensed to carry a concealed weapon should I ever have the misfortune of meeting one in a dark alley."
"Yeah." Ace grabbed two pairs of velvet-lined cuffs. He held them like a man who truly had no interest in using them.
"You really aren't into it, are you?" she asked in surprise. As gung ho and adventurous as he was in everything else, she would have thought he was a regular porn-meister.
"No. I like my sex the good old-fashioned way. Down and dirty."
She rolled her eyes at him. "You know, there for a minute, I was starting to like you."
"Only a minute?"
"You're right. It was more like ten seconds."
"Okay, for that, I vote for this." He picked up a cat-o'-nine-tails that was made of thick leather straps.
"Fine." She left him and went to the bustier rack, where she quickly found a frilly red number made out of satin and feathers. "What do you think of this?"
He grinned. "I like it."
"Good. What size are you?"
Grandma laughed. "I have his size in back."
"No!" Ace snapped. "I only have one rule in life: no drag."
"Why not?" Rhea teased. "You allergic to satin?"
"No, but this" -- he picked up the thong part of it -- "would give me a wedgie from hell. No, thank you."
She tsked at him, then put it back.
Ace stopped as they passed a tall, thin silver canister that held several long feathers. His look turned speculative, then wicked. "Tickle your ass with a feather?"
He cleared his throat. "I said, particularly nice weather?"
Rhea screwed her face up. "Oh, please, don't tell me you're a fan of Up the Academy?"
Ace was stunned that Rhea knew his vague reference to the offbeat, early-eighties film. "So how many times have you watched it?"
"More than I cared to. It was my older bother's favorite movie in high school, and I curse the day they ever turned it into a videotape."
Ace laughed, amazed at just how much he enjoyed their verbal sparring and her unique views of the world. "Hey, I defend your brother's taste in movies."
"You would." But the dancing light in her eyes said that she wasn't as offended as she pretended.
Better still, she picked up one of the feathers and added it to the cuffs.
"You gonna let me?" he asked hopefully.
"Oh, no, you're the slave, remember? You have to do what I say."
"Yeah, but don't slaves get rewards?"
"No." She sashayed past him.
Maybe slaves didn't get rewarded, but before they finished this detail, Ace fully intended to. He'd been too hot for this women far too long to not at least get a small taste of that wisecracking mouth.
As for the rest of her...
Ace wasn't the kind of man to let something he wanted get away from him, and he wasn't about to let Rhea tie him down without both of them getting a taste of something decadent.
Copyright © 2005 by Sherrilyn Kenyon