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Chapter One

IT WAS HIS kiss, his touch, and the promise of so much more in his rich cocoa eyes that had taunted Tawny Bishop in the wee hours of the night for the past decade and had finally driven her from Paris to New York City on this cold November night. Memories of her once best friend’s demanding hands running over her heated flesh, enticing her into giving him anything he wanted, brought a rush of adrenaline, and her nerves flamed to life. A cacophony of wind and rain created a dark serenade to her seductive and nerve-racking thoughts as the cab weaved through traffic toward the Ultimate Hotel, where his family was hosting a fundraiser.

Carson Bad.

Even his name sounded stable and strong. She felt a smile tugging at her lips. You were bad, all right. His friendship and his deep, confident voice had once been the salve to all of her worries, righting everything that had felt wrong during her college years. God, she missed him. One sinful Sunday night his voice had done more than soothe. It had slithered beneath her skin, fueling her desires, and he’d introduced her to his darker, sensual side. Look at me, Tawny. What do you see? Her pulse quickened with the memory of him perched above her, her arms bound with silk above her head, his body bearing deliciously down on her. You, Carson. I see you, she’d answered. It hadn’t been enough of an answer. She’d known it then, and it had haunted her in the years since. But she’d been too entranced, so turned on for the first time in her life, rational thinking had not been an option. And every Sunday night for almost two years thereafter, their connection had deepened as they’d explored their sexuality, testing boundaries and taking their fill like drunks at an exclusive bar. Those dark desires had consumed her, making it hard for her to concentrate on anything else. Shame had topped that sexual sundae, making their secret pleasures guilt-inducing and alienating. Until one fateful night when a knock had sounded on his apartment door, and Tawny’s brilliant, lust-addled brain had kicked into gear—and her heart had taken a hit.

She’d been thinking rationally ever since, and as it turned out, a decade of rational thinking was not all it was cracked up to be. Their initial sexual encounter had been the first time meticulously careful and private Tawny had acted on a whim. Coming to see Carson was the second. She’d seen the announcement for the fundraiser only three days earlier, and had been a nervous wreck ever since making her flight arrangements.

She stared out at the dark, rainy night, thinking about her father, who had passed away two years ago from pancreatic cancer. Her mother had been killed while crossing the street when Tawny was only five years old, and her father had never remarried. Days before his death, her father had asked Tawny one question that had changed the direction of her life. Did she have any regrets? That simple question had spurred a torrent of emotions and was the catalyst for her divorce, her move to Paris, and her need to finally deal with her feelings for Carson.

“Ma’am?”

The cabdriver’s irritated tone tore her from her thoughts. She must have zoned out, which was no surprise after the excruciating delays on her almost nine-hour flight, during which she was seated next to a man who smelled like garlic and body odor. She paid the driver, slung her bag over her shoulder, and stepped out of the cab. A brisk gust of wind stung her cheeks as the driver lifted her suitcase from the trunk. She pulled her cashmere peacoat tight around her and thanked the doorman for helping her with her suitcase as she entered the hotel.

Happy to be out of the bitter cold, and beyond nervous about seeing Carson, Tawny was still in a state of shock that she was actually there. She drew in a deep, calming breath, inhaling the soft, warm scent of figs, the hottest trend in fragrances. Many upscale hotels and businesses had begun pumping in the aroma to elicit warm, homey feelings for their customers. As a perfumer, Tawny noticed, and distinguished, scents first, using them like DNA to get a read on people and places. Fig was nice, but it was not the scent she was seeking.

Her pulse hammered like thunder in her ears as she zeroed in on the sign announcing Carson’s family’s annual fundraiser. In the center of the sign was a picture of Lorelei Bad, his younger sister, who had passed away from leukemia when she was only eight years old. She wondered if Carson had been sad tonight, or if the event had been cathartic for him.

A hotel staff member appeared from behind the sign. He lifted it from its easel and walked down a hallway. No! She couldn’t be too late. Not after getting up the nerve to finally come see Carson to try to figure out how to move on with her life.

Pulling her suitcase behind her, she ran across the marble floor. She didn’t care if she was perspiring from nerves and probably looked as fatigued as she felt. She had to see Carson before she lost her courage. “Wait! Please!”

The man turned, exhaustion written in the dark circles beneath his eyes. A practiced smile lifted his lips. “Yes?”

“The fundraiser? Which suite is it in?” She sounded as breathless as she felt.

His smile faded, and her heart sank.

“I’m sorry, but it’s over. It was in the Grand Ballroom, right through those doors.” He pointed down the hall.

“Thank you.” She hurried down the hall and burst through the doors, stumbling to a stop in the nearly empty room. Hotel staff were clearing away tables and chairs, along with the remnants of what looked like a beach-themed event. Pictures of young children lined the walls. Children who she assumed had fallen prey to leukemia, too, making the discovery of the vacant room feel that much sadder.

Her phone vibrated in her bag. Knowing it was probably her ex-husband, Keith, making sure she’d arrived safely, she let it go to voicemail. She didn’t need her oh so patient ex trying to make her feel better.

She couldn’t have asked for a more amicable divorce, especially given that during their marriage Keith had felt Carson’s presence like a barrier between them just as strongly as she had. And he’d known exactly whom she was thinking about. She wasn’t sure she would have been as understanding as Keith, but they’d managed to remain friends. Unfortunately, he’d never let her go completely. At first she had allowed his constant calls and texts to continue after they were divorced because it had been comforting to know someone was watching out for her when she’d moved to Paris. Only Keith had begun to take it too far, keeping tabs on her as though she couldn’t take care of herself, and it was becoming a problem. She’d spent the last two years trying to figure out who she was, and Keith didn’t have that answer. She’d never been her true self with him.

There was only one man who knew her better than she knew herself—and by the looks of the empty ballroom, she’d missed him.

This is why I shouldn’t ever do things on a whim, she told herself as she lugged her suitcase toward the lobby. She knew better than to jet across the Atlantic unannounced. What if Carson was married? Or if he didn’t even remember her? Had she been the type of study partner and lover who had gotten lost in a long line of willing women? She’d convinced herself that their relationship was unforgettable, one of a kind. Maybe even true love. If the spark was still there, and she hadn’t blown it out of proportion after all these years, then maybe they had a chance for something real after all. And what if she couldn’t tell how strong the spark was? What if there was no spark? Thinking there was no spark and believing it were two different things. Oh God! She was too confused. How could she move forward with her life unless she knew exactly where they stood?

Carson was a private man, with no social media profiles or public listings of his address or phone number. They were similar in that way, though for different reasons, and it was one of the many things she adored about him. The only way to see him now was to muster the courage to visit him at his office, which she knew she wouldn’t do. It was one thing to embarrass herself at a public event where she could slip out unnoticed if he was accompanied by a woman. A wife? Her stomach knotted with the thought. It was quite another thing to be asked a million questions by an assistant about why she didn’t have an appointment. Not to mention she would be taking the risk of Carson telling an assistant he didn’t want to see her.

Oh Lord. This really was a stupid idea.

“Welcome to the Ultimate Hotel,” said the all-too-perky brunette behind the reception desk. “How may I help you?”

Get me on a plane back to Paris, stat. “I’d like a room for the night, please.”

The woman’s expression softened. “I’m sorry, but there are several events in town this weekend, and we are completely sold-out.”

Are you kidding me? “Thank you. What is the closest hotel?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have a tough time finding a room anywhere nearby on such short notice this weekend, but”—she pulled a piece of paper from a drawer—“you can try these hotels.”

Tawny glanced at the paper, wishing she hadn’t sold her father’s house. At least then she’d have a place to stay. But she’d been too overcome with grief to think she’d ever want to step foot in it again. “Thank you.”

She stepped to the side and looked over the list of hotels. An intoxicating, familiar aroma filtered into her senses. She closed her eyes, silently dissecting it with each inhalation. Moroccan tangerine, juniper leaves, champagne, lavender, sandalwood, and if she wasn’t mistaken—which she never was—amber and rum, with an underlying uniqueness that only one man had ever possessed.

Carson.

The scent traveled inside her, winding around memories of their college years and gathering them like fish in a net. One after another they peppered her mind. Carson’s smiles over textbooks, the gentle nudge of his shoulder, the push of his finger along her cheek as he tucked her hair behind her ear after hours of studying. His deep laughter and witty comments as they watched their favorite sci-fi shows whispered through her head. With her heart in her throat, she lifted her gaze, and lost her breath at the sight of the strikingly handsome man who had once been her lover and best friend standing a few feet away with his brother, Brett. She’d met Brett once when he’d come to visit Carson at college.

Her attention moved swiftly back to Carson, and she was unable to look away. His white dress shirt was rolled up to his elbows, revealing muscular forearms, and tucked into perfectly tailored dark slacks. He was broader now, tall, and sturdy. A big, beautiful man with the classic good looks of a 1950s movie star. He raked a hand through his short hair, laughing at something Brett must have said. His familiar laughter made her knees weak.

Please look over.

No. Don’t. Her heart might explode.

Wait. Yes, look over.

Oh God.

What was she doing? She was a professional, educated woman. She should not be weak-kneed over the sight of a man. But apparently her body didn’t get the memo, because her pulse skyrocketed, and she could barely breathe. She gripped the handle of her suitcase tighter, using it for balance. Carson turned, his chiseled features softened by the hint of a five-o’clock shadow. Their eyes connected, and his brows knitted, his jaw tensed.

Disappointment clutched her. Didn’t he recognize her? Or did he? Was he angry? She should walk away, but she was pinned in place by his riveting gaze.

“HEY, ISN’T THAT your friend from college?” Brett, Carson’s youngest brother and business partner, asked.

“Yeah,” Carson answered, hearing the disbelief in his own voice. “I’ll catch up with you another time.” He couldn’t take his eyes off Tawny Bishop, one of his closest friends from college, and the woman he’d compared all other women to ever since. Tawny Klein, he reminded himself. That went down like shattered glass. She’d gotten married right after college, and he’d been forced to let her go—completely.

Brett said something, but Carson was already on the move, eating up the distance between him and Tawny. Jesus, she looked phenomenal. Her gorgeous green eyes were locked on him, giving away her nervousness and her interest.

She’s married, you asshole.

Maybe the interest he saw was wishful thinking. He’d spent long nights fantasizing about her entrancing eyes, her full, luscious lips, and, as strange as it sounded in his own head, her mind. People considered Carson a genius, and he knew Tawny was a level above, which was a huge turn-on. His fingers itched to touch her silky, strawberry-blond hair. She wore it shorter now, framing her beautiful face just above her shoulders. Still long enough to tug? He’d always loved her shoulders, though she’d usually kept them hidden, as they were now. But her pretty coat didn’t hide her magnificent long legs, which disappeared beneath a sexy little black dress. Ten years was a long damn time, and here she was, standing before him like a gift. Maybe there was a Santa Claus after all.

Tabs.” He reached for her, embracing her too hard and too long, but damn. She smelled feminine, and heavenly familiar even after all these years. My Tabby. The nickname had come without thought, and brought an unstoppable smile. She reminded him of a sweet, cuddly kitten. She’d always been more comfortable staying in than going out. She used to tutor kids Fridays and Saturdays, and she claimed to have too much studying to do afterward to go out, but he’d known she wasn’t comfortable at parties or in crowds with strangers. They’d spent hours studying together Monday through Thursday, and those nights usually ended with Tawny cuddled up against his side in a purely platonic way, watching one sci-fi show or another and eating Junior Mints. But Sunday nights she’d been his. Truly his. At least that’s how things were before the single most wonderful, and awful, night of his life.

“Carson.”

Her warm breath whispered over his cheek. Desire spiked up his spine, as if no time had passed. She was finally here, in his arms—and married. He forced himself to release her, instantly missing the press of her lush curves against him. Her lips parted in the sweetest smile, the one that had first captured his attention.

Devastating.

Delicious.

Dangerous.

She was the only woman who had the power to unravel him with one look, one touch. He could run a marathon, bench three hundred and fifteen pounds, and take down the stealthiest hackers, but when it came to Tawny, he was powerless in so many ways.

“You look incredible.” His gaze slid down her body, and she gripped the handle of her luggage tight, her knuckles blanching. Her eyes and that move sent conflicting messages of desire and fear. “What are you doing in the city?”

She blinked several times, as if she were weighing her answer. He desperately wanted to pull her into his arms again, but she wasn’t his to touch. He pushed a hand into his pocket to keep from reaching for her.

Tawny tucked her hair behind her ear—a nervous habit he’d seen her do hundreds of times. She inhaled deeply and tilted her head a little, flashing another of his favorite smiles. The coy one that sent his mind down a dark path.

“I came to see you, actually,” she finally answered.

“Me?” Christ. How long had he waited to hear those words? He stepped closer, his body thrumming with heat and hope. But goddamn, Carson didn’t mess around with married women. Not even her. He forced himself to lean back on his heels, keeping a modicum of space between them.

“Yeah,” she said with a whisper of a laugh. Another adorable nervous habit. “I heard about the fundraiser, and…” She shrugged. Her gaze skittered away for a beat, and when she looked at him again, the air around them ignited. “I miss you, Carson.”

Aw, fuck. How was he supposed to resist her? “Tabs…? What’s going on?”

She pressed her lips together, a flush rising on her cheeks, and she looked away again.

He respected her marriage. Her husband had been a good guy in college, even if a bit of a bore. But if he hurt her, all bets were off, and he’d have Carson to deal with. “Is everything all right with Keith?”

“Keith?” Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “Yes. Fine. We’ve been divorced for almost two years. But you probably know that, being one of the world’s most renowned security experts. I’d imagine there’s not much about me you don’t know.”

Carson uncovered things about people they thought they’d buried forever. But after Tawny had gotten married, he’d allowed himself to delve into her personal life only once. Seeing her with her husband had been enough to keep him from ever doing it again. Now his emotions soared. If he’d known she’d gotten divorced, he would have been on her doorstep the next day.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know about your divorce.” But I’m glad I do now. He took another step closer, noticing the darkening of her eyes. “I haven’t looked you up since a short while after you were married.”

“You…Really?” she asked softly.

“Yes.”

“I never looked you up, either. Well, I poked around online once or twice, but that was a long time ago. I couldn’t…” Her voice trailed off, and she quickly added, “I was just too busy.”

Yeah, busy. You go with that, sweetheart. Go with whatever you need to feel better, because you’re here now, and you’re divorced, and I’m one hell of a lucky bastard. “Let’s go someplace where we can talk.”

“I need to find a hotel. This one is booked.” She waved a piece of paper.

“Stay with me,” came out before he could think, but he didn’t regret it. The woman he’d loved for his entire adult life was finally within reach, and he wasn’t about to let her go. This was his chance to figure out why he’d lost her, get to know her again, and make things right.

Uncertainty rose in her eyes.

“Come on, Tabs. You said you missed me. What better way to get reacquainted than hanging out like old times?” He slid a hand to the base of her neck, brushing his thumb over her cheek. Her breathing hitched, and he could see, and feel, it all right there beneath the veil of trepidation—passion and greed, vulnerability and sweetness.

“Carson,” she whispered.

He’d heard that plea in his dreams so often, he was this close to lowering his lips to hers, reassuring her that he would keep her safe and make her happy. But just because she missed him didn’t mean she was ready for him.

“I’ve got every episode of X-Files and Firefly and all your favorite sci-fi movies,” he urged.

That sweet, sexy laugh slipped out again. He took her luggage from her hand and wrapped one hand around her waist, tugging her tight against him, making the decision for her. “Let’s go, Tabs. You’re staying with me. You can tell me all about how much you missed me.”

“Carson…”

Selfishly soaking in the feel of her in his arms again, he said, “If you think I’m going to let you stay at a hotel, you’re wrong. My place, Tabs. We just have to make one stop on the way.”

“For what?”

“Junior Mints.”

She laughed again, and his whole world seemed brighter. Damn, he’d missed her.

“Fine,” she said. “But don’t think I’m joining your harem. I came to see you, not sleep with you.”

Ouch. Yeah, he’d had a harem back in college, but not by his doing. He’d never chased women. “How long are you in town?”

“Four days. Five nights.”

He hauled her closer and gazed into her eyes. “I promise you, Tawny Bish—Klein—”

Bishop. I went back to my maiden name.”

That probably shouldn’t make him feel good, but hell, she was Tawny Bishop once again. “I promise you, Tawny Bishop, I will not ask you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“I know,” she said a little breathlessly.

“I also promise you, when five nights pass, you won’t want to get out of my bed.”

She was quiet for a pensive second before saying, “Same old Carson.”

“Not even close.”

To continue reading, buy BAD BOYS AFTER DARK: CARSON

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