|Excerpted from TAKE ME FOR A RIDE
by Karen Kendall
Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Signet Eclipse, November 2009
Manhattan, September 2008
Some people steal money. Others steal cars, liquor or big ticket items like jewelry. Art recovery agent Eric McDougal stole women.
He did it with wit, style, passion—and guile . . . since they never knew they were missing in action until he returned them to reality.
McDougal took his women for a ride and a good time was had by all. Afterward, he set them down gently on their own two feet; gave ‘em a sweet smile, a wink from his Newman-blue eyes and a swat on the backside. How they handled things from there was not his problem. Well, not usually.
This evening as he trained his gaze on the pretty target two blocks ahead, McDougal contemplated the horrifying memory of what a tasty, busty little psychopath had done to his Kawasaki Ninja ZX14. He’d almost bitten through his own tongue when he saw it. Even now, three days later and a thousand miles from Miami, he winced.
Pink. She’d painted the Ninja pink. His jaw worked.
Why? He’d taken her to nice places. He’d never made any promises. He’d given her—if he did say so himself—the mother of all orgasms. And just because he hadn’t called afterwards . . .
Okay, so maybe he wasn’t much of a gentleman. He’d never advertised himself as one. But—
It was cold. Beyond cold. Vicious brutality without conscience, was what it was. Carnage.
He was tempted to press charges. But then he pictured the cop’s face as he filled out the report, and he deep-sixed that bright idea.
Focus, you bonehead.
Natalie Rosen, his mark this evening, had nothing to do with the destruction of his bike. An art restorer and probable thief, she lurched left on the crowded Manhattan sidewalk between 92nd and 1st. The door of Reif’s opened and swallowed her.
Reif’s? She didn’t look the type for a seedy old neighborhood bar run by three generations of Irish. Reif’s was a blue-collar place in a now affluent neighborhood. North of 96th got dicey as it eased into Spanish Harlem, but south of 96th had become gentrified. Still, there were a few old hold-outs like Reif’s, where electricians and plumbers mingled with white collar yuppies and argued politics in a haze of dust mingled with decades of lingering, stale cigarette smoke. The Yankees, the Mets, the mayor, the weather . . . those were typical topics.
Reif’s was situated on the ground floor of a six-story apartment building. It smelled beer-sodden and mildewy but it was also homey and offered a sort of tobacco-stained comfort that suited McDougal . . . just not a girl like Natalie Rosen.
Natalie had dark, glossy, straight hair and dark, serious eyes that looked a little at odds with her snub, lightly freckled nose. She was cute in a repressed, academic sort of way. Not tweedy or preppy—more earnest and artsy. The chick wore a lot of black, but there was a difference between severe New York black and sultry Miami black.
New York black covered while Miami black revealed. New York black involved tights, turtlenecks, scarves and coats. Miami black involved thongs, skirt lengths just shy of illegal, spike heels and fishnets—particularly on some of those little Brazilian hotties, with their bras clearly showing under skimpy tops . . . oh, yeah. McDougal was a big fan of Miami black.
Focus. He frowned. What in the hell was a girl with an art degree from Carnegie Mellon doing in a beer-soaked joint like Reif’s? Surely not unloading a two-million dollar necklace that had once belonged to Catherine the Great.
It was his job to find out, but he needed to hang back for a few. Let her get settled. Have a drink or two. He pegged her for the type that would walk into a dusty place like Reif’s and order, say, white wine. A little naïve. A little out of touch with reality.
Twenty minutes later, McDougal shoved his hands into his pockets, crossed the street and entered Reif’s. He glimpsed her immediately: Natalie perched on one of the old, wooden, backless bar-stools, staring sightlessly into the dregs of a short glass of whiskey, rocks.
His opinion of her went up a notch—at least she hadn’t ordered a white Zinfandel in an Irish pub. Of course, his opinion of her didn’t matter much—he’d get what he came for, regardless. He always did.
In all that black, Natalie looked as if she’d smell of sulphur or mothballs, but as she dug into her nylon messenger bag for a tissue he caught a waft of fresh laundry detergent and a tinge of 4711, a cologne his sisters used to wear.
Over the bar hung a four foot by eight foot mirror, which reflected among other things Natalie’s drawn, downcast face. Something was on the lady’s mind.
McDougal nodded at the bartender and mounted the stool next to hers. It was covered in cheap green vinyl and had seen better days, but the upside of worn was comfortable. It announced his presence by creaking under his solid one hundred eighty pounds, but Natalie didn’t look at him.
Didn’t matter. She would. Women always did, eventually—not that in every case they liked what they saw. Some of the smarter ones summed him up as a player in one glance and dismissed him. Others focused on the bare fourth finger of his left hand. The fun ones started shoveling verbal shit at him immediately. Which type was she?
As Eric casually ordered a Guinness, he watched her in the mirror. Watched as her pointed little chin came up, she pushed some hair out of her face and cut her eyes towards him, her lashes at half mast.
Then came her first impression, the under-cover evaluation of his six-foot two frame, muscular forearms sprinkled with freckles and golden hair, his denim-clad legs. She took in the brown leather jacket and the reddish-brown stubble on his chin; then the grin that widened as he watched her.
That was when she realized that he’d seen her inspecting him in the mirror. Her gaze flew to his in the reflected surface and froze. A slow blush crept up her neck—a blush so fierce he could see it even in the dim light of Reif’s.
“Hi,” McDougal said, turning to face her with the full wattage of his grin.
She blinked, stared, then looked away as the blush intensified. She put a hand up to her neck as if to cool the skin off. “H-hi.”
She was a babe in the woods . . . without mosquito repellent. He prepared to feast on her tender young naiveté.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” McDougal said, taking his grin down a few notches, from wolfish to disarming.
She seemed to have no adequate response to that.
“It’s very normal to check out the guy sitting next to you. He could be a vagrant, a pervert, or a serial killer.”
She laughed reluctantly at that, and it transformed her face from mildly pretty to dazzling. She’d gone from librarian to . . . to . . . Carla Bruni in half a second flat. It was McDougal’s turn to stare. The French First Lady had nothing on her.
“So which one are you?” she asked, evidently emboldened.
“Me? I’m just a tourist, sweetheart. The only cereal killing I do involves a bowl of raisin bran or corn flakes.”
That got a smile. “Where are you from?”
“Florida,” she said, sounding wistful. “I’d love to be on a beach right now, not in the city.”
“You work here?”
Natalie nodded. “I’m a restoration artist.”
“A restoration artist,” McDougal repeated. “As in, they call you to touch up the Sistine Chapel?” He nodded at the bartender and pointed at her glass.
“Something like that. But I specialize in rugs and tapestries, not painting.” A wary expression crossed her face as the drink was set in front of her. “Um, I didn’t order—”
“It’s on me,” McDougal said.
“Oh, but . . .”
“What’s your name?”
She hesitated. “Natalie.”
“Natalie, it’s just a drink. Not a big deal. ‘Kay?”
“Thank you,” she said after a long pause. She curled her small but competent hand around the glass. “Actually, you have no idea how much I need this.”
Yes I do. First heist, honey? It always shreds your nerves. But all McDougal said was, “You’re welcome. I’m Eric.” And he proceeded to chat her up while she got lusciously tipsy on her second whiskey.
Really, he should be ashamed of himself.
Natalie Rosen’s eyes had gone just a little fuzzy, her gestures loose and her posture relaxed. She’d also gotten wittier. “So you said you’re a tourist. Are you an accidental one?”
He smiled. “Nope. I do have a purpose. Are you an accidental bar-fly?”
“No.” She averted her gaze, then looked down into her whiskey and murmured, “I’m an accidental thief.”
“Do tell,” McDougal said, showing his teeth and signaling the bartender again. If he had his wicked way, she’d soon be a naked thief.
Natalie took a sip of her third Jameson’s whiskey and had a short debate with her smarter, more sober side. Hadn’t her parents always told her not to talk to strangers? Not to accept candy—or whiskey—from them?
On the other hand, the drink had come straight from the hand of the bartender, so she knew there was nothing funny in it. And she desperately, urgently needed to talk to someone about the crisis she faced. She could pay a shrink . . . or she could talk to this startlingly good-looking stranger with the laser-blue eyes. Not like she’d ever see the man again after tonight, which was kind of a shame.
Eric had a young Paul Newman’s features but not his cool, distant stare. Instead he possessed the freckles and warm mischief of Prince Harry. He also had the prince’s ginger hair, but his skin was unusually bronzed for a red-head, rather than milk-white. His looks bordered on irresistible, made even more so by his air of total confidence.
If Natalie were honest, she didn’t know whether she was slightly drunk on the stranger’s looks rather than the whiskey. Probably both. There he sat, one reddish eyebrow raised, looking intrigued and attracted—to her, of all things—and inviting her to tell her story. She had the sensation of acting out someone else’s page in a script.
But for once she did have an unusual tale to tell, one that set her apart from all the other worker bees swarming the concrete sidewalks of Manhattan.
“How can anyone be an accidental thief?” Eric asked. “Seems to me that you either are one or you aren’t.”
Natalie swirled the ice counterclockwise in her glass, which made a small rumble as its base rubbed against the worn wood of the bar. “Not true. Let’s say that you borrowed something to show it to someone, but she refused to give it back.”
Eric took a swig of the Guinness and eyed her reflectively. “Well, I personally would insist on its return.”
“I tried,” said Natalie.
“Failing that, I’d probably ‘borrow’ it back.”
“What if the person has hidden it?”
“Then I’d think about using force.”
Natalie sighed. “What if the person who won’t give back what you borrowed is seventy years old and fragile?”
“Hmmm,” said Eric. “That does complicate things.”
“And worse, what if she’s your grandmother and she helped raise you?”
“I see your point. You’re kind of screwed.”
Natalie turned to him and spread her hands wide. “I am completely, utterly and totally screwed.”
Those Newman eyes seemed to deepen in color, and the corner of his mouth quirked. Belatedly, she thought about the literal meaning of her words and had a sudden image of a bedspread pulled back in invitation. Her pulse quickened and she crossed her legs.
He took note of the movement, his gaze moving to her thighs, outlined under her skirt. A silken shame slid along her spine and she shifted on the bar stool.
“What am I supposed to do, knock her down?” Natalie continued. “She won’t even open the door to me now.” She took a large swallow of her whiskey.
“I’m a little confused,” McDougal said. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
Sexual attraction aside, decency and integrity shone out of those eyes. Deep blue. The color of truth. She wavered. “You have to promise not to tell anyone,” she said, pushing the hair off her forehead.
“Scout’s honor. Who am I going to tell? And you’ve only shared your first name. You’re practically incognito.”
That comforted her. In a city of eight million people, his not knowing her last name was like a cloak of invisibility.
“Talk to me, baby, won’t you talk to me . . .” he crooned cheesily, making her laugh.
“Fine,” she said, and inhaled some more whiskey. “Three days ago, I went in to work and there it was: the most unusual necklace I’ve ever seen . . .”
Excerpted from TAKE ME FOR A RIDE by Karen Kendall, copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Signet Eclipse, November 2009. ISBN-10: 0-451-22846-4 ISBN-13: 978-0-451-22846-8.