about being dragged away by his godfather, Keban, who had spent the next dozen years alternating between teaching him the history of warfare and subjecting him to bizarre, often bloody rituals. So she got why he didn’t want to let his guard down—even with her—until they were far away from the gang that had made their lives, and the neighborhood, a living hell. He wanted to feel safe. More important, he wanted to know that she was safe, that he wouldn’t lose her the way he lost his family. And having seen too many other street kids start with big dreams only to wind up with a kid or two of their own, stalled in a crappy apartment only a couple of streets away from where they started, he didn’t want things to go any further between them until they were someplace better.

Stubborn ass that he was, he wouldn’t talk about it. Boom, done, end of discussion.

But she didn’t want to be on a pedestal, damn it. If she wanted something she’d earn it herself, and if she felt threatened, she could deadeye a rat across a cluttered warehouse with her .38. But she hadn’t gotten anywhere with that logic, or with anything else. And the more she pushed him, the harder he pushed himself.

Something had to give, and she wanted it to be her.

“I’ve already got the dream, dumbass. You’re my dream.” Stomach fluttering like it was filled with crackhead moths, she shifted her grip to his collar, used it as leverage to pull herself up onto her toes. And kissed him.

She must’ve been taller in her fantasies, because she’d always pictured herself hitting his lips. She got the side of his throat instead, tasted the faint salty tang of his skin, and felt his quick indrawn breath when the move brought their bodies flush. Her heart drummed in her ears as he stiffened and grabbed her upper arms. But he didn’t push her away. And the pulse beneath her lips throbbed hard and fast.

“Reese. Don’t.” His voice was a low growl of warning.

But she was done playing by his rules. So instead of backing off, she leaned in, grazed her teeth along the throbbing vessel and bit down, not hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to say: I want you, here and now. Against his throat, she whispered, “I know you’re working to get us someplace better, and I want that too. But don’t you understand? We’re safest when we’re staying sharp and watching each other’s backs. And if you think ignoring what’s going on between us isn’t a distraction, then you’re a bigger idiot than I thought . . . unless you’re not distracted, in which case I’m the idiot.”

His answering laugh was part groan. “You’re not an idiot.” He got a hand on the back of her neck and pressed her face into the crook of his neck, though she wasn’t sure if he was trying to hold her close or stop her from kissing him again. Beneath her ear, his words rumbled hollowly as he said, “But you know what happens when people pair off around here. They fucking stay here.”

“Not us,” she said firmly. “We’re better than that. We won’t let ourselves stall.” But she would do her damnedest to slow him down a little before he crashed and burned. “We can be together and still have our dreams.” She might not want a wide-open prairie anymore, but she hadn’t stopped picturing tomorrow, didn’t ever plan to.

He held himself still and silent for a long moment as thunder rumbled beneath the rattling raindrops. Then, softly, he said, “Do you really think so?”

For a second she thought that she had to have imagined the question. But there was no mistaking the way one of his hands slid from the back of her head to her nape, the other from her shoulder to her waist. Suddenly, he wasn’t holding her captive against him anymore. He was simply holding her.

Holy shit. The air left her lungs in a rush as she realized that she was getting through to him. Or maybe he’d finally gotten to the end of his self-control—maybe, probably, a combination of the two. She didn’t know, didn’t care. Putting all her certainty into it, she said, “I know so. We’re better together than apart, and that’s a fact.”

Together, they had waged war on the Cobras, had helped Detective Fallon’s task force weaken the powerful gang and its reign of terror. They had watched each other ’s backs, watched each other grow up. And if he had been the boss of their joint ventures more often than not, she had been okay with following his lead . . . at least until now.

Now, she was taking the lead. And he’d better catch up.

“I don’t want to get this wrong,” he rasped. “It’s too damn important.” But his hand dropped to her hip and his fingers curved in a warm, possessive grip.

Her pulse hammered. A gust rattled the windows, making her feel as if the storm was inside her, inside him, racing between them. The beat of the rain was the rush of blood in her veins; the lightning was the searing electricity she saw in his eyes. “I don’t want to make a mistake either,” she said softly. “But I’m tired of waiting to start our lives. I want to live them instead.”

Thunder rumbled as he tightened his grip on her. “Reese, there’s something else I need to—”

“Love me,” she interrupted, forcing the words past the weight of nerves because her gut said it was time to stop talking. “Please love me, because . . . Hell, because I love you.”

She had never said the words before; neither of them had. Not, she suspected, to anyone. And the moment she did, lightning flashed hard, something went zzzt outside, and the electricity died.

Holy. Crap.

It wasn’t the first time they had lost power during a storm—far from it—but it was the first time she’d been in Dez’s arms when it happened, the first time the darkness had made her so vividly aware of her other senses. She smelled the newness of his leather and the stormy air that still clung to him. And when he said, “Damn it, Reese,” she heard loud and clear the too-serious tone that meant a lecture was coming.

She tightened her grip on the collar. “Don’t even think—”

He cut her off with a kiss that made her senses spin even as the reality froze her in place.

Dez. Was kissing. Her.

Nerves and heat collided and combined as she closed her eyes, memorizing the moment in her heart . . . and then threw herself headfirst into a kiss that was everything that she had hoped for and nothing like she had planned.

His lips were softer than she had expected, their press more a question than a demand, but the contact was electrifying. Warmth furled through her as he framed her face in his hands and kissed the corner of her mouth, her cheek, the point of her jaw, and back again. The difference in their heights meant that they weren’t plastered together anymore, but she leaned into him, opened to him, and felt the electric jolt of contact when their tongues met in an achingly soft caress. Her heart shuddered with the restraint he was using to show her how he felt, even if he hadn’t said the words.

As he kept things soft and slow, though, her frustration built. She could sense his coiled tension, knew it was costing him to be so gentle. But, damn it, she wanted him—the stubborn, arrogant, know-it-all who always had to be in charge—not this careful, watered-down version that was still trying to protect her, still saw her as some fragile-assed princess.

Hissing out a breath, she deepened the kiss, sliding her tongue against his and adding a scrape of teeth that had him groaning deep in his throat. “I won’t break,” she said against his lips. “Kiss me for real, or I’ll find someone who will.”

It was an empty threat, but he froze, not even breathing. Lightning flashed, illuminating them in a starburst of blue-white, and she saw raging heat in his eyes, a barely leashed fury that was almost enough to make her retreat. Almost. But this was Dez. This was what she wanted. So she reached for the zipper tab of her sleek black sweater and eased it down a few inches, far enough that when the lightning flickered again, he could see the edge of her bra beneath. And nothing else.

He growled her name, followed by a succinct: “Fuck it.”

She laughed, because that was the man she knew, the one she wanted. But the sound quickly turned to a gasp as he spun them in a dizzying whirl that put her up against the nearest wall. His lower body pinned hers in a full-contact press that let her feel the hard lines of his thighs and the rigid bulge behind his fly, but she had only an instant to ride the slashing, adrenaline-charged sense of victory. After that, his lips slammed on hers, all hard edges, heat, and the frustration that had been building for far too long.

And then she couldn’t think at all.

She sucked in a breath, floundering for a split second, and in that moment of hesitation, his tongue surged through her parted lips and his mouth clamped on hers, sealing them together. Wild heat lashed through her, and she let out a desperate moan as he boosted her up and urged her to twine her legs around his hips.

Their lips parted, then reconnected in a deeper, darker kiss as he ran his hands up her arms and then inward, to cup her aching breasts and drag his thumbs across her nipples, which were so hard they hurt. When he touched them, though, the pain became pleasure, sharp and acute, and like nothing she’d ever felt before. All of a

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