wherewithal to lift his blade, the bastard, but my training and fury had taken over, and I slammed the heel of my palm into his nose, driving it with the force of a woman who knew how to put her hips and shoulders into a blow. He’d have a fuck-all time of breathing now.

I took out his left knee with my heel and he cried out again, crumpling to the ground like a marionette’s abandoned toy. Only a top-notch surgeon would help him walk again. I wanted to do more, and I had a clear shot at his kidney. Remembering the joyous smile of the woman he’d threatened to kill, I reared back pitilessly and aimed the strongest part of my body into the center of his being. I kicked—

And missed. Something, someone, slammed into me and I backpedaled madly, but couldn’t regain my balance in three-inch heels. I would have crashed into the steel doors behind me except the elevator had opened, and instead I was wheeled into the mouth of the car, along with my new attacker. I grunted as the wall broke my fall, knocking the breath from my body.

Ajax was struggling on the floor against two men in black suits, fighting to reach me, his killing hand stretched toward me. His smell was strong in my nose—sooty hatred and soured defeat—and his pain and his fury were top notes, burning off hot and fast. Then the elevator doors shut. I was free of the abominable Ajax, but trapped inside a steel box with, beneath, and against a new and unfathomable threat.

Very few things are certain in this world, even fewer when the adrenaline and heat of a combat situation are still on the rise. As the elevator ascended, here’s what was certain. The person pinning me against the wall was male. He outweighed me by at least fifty pounds. And as soon as I got an opening, he was going to lose his left nut. The man crowded in close, as if he knew it too.

We jockeyed for position, me trying to gain enough space and distance to land a forceful blow, him defensive, but doing nothing to launch an assault of his own. I didn’t care. I wanted out; out of his grip, out of this box. Out of this whole nightmare. Gradually, though, his voice penetrated the fog of anger and fear that kept me swinging.

“Stop fighting! It’s okay. You’re safe…” He gasped this, struggling to shield his family jewels. “C’mon, Jo-Jo! I’m not going to hurt you!”

Jo-Jo. Only one person on this earth had ever called me that. I looked up, shocked, into a face I hadn’t laid eyes on in almost a decade. And froze.

Is it possible for a heart to plummet and swell at the same time? Because I swear that’s what mine did. I sagged against the wall, and the body I’d trained to be so capable and strong was suddenly shaky and faint.

I spent a moment more cursing my traitorous, overactive, estrogen-ridden, double-X-chromosome-carrying hormones. Then I turned and soaked in the sight of my first lover.

His features were more angular and defined than I remembered, though his expression was one I was intimately familiar with—intent gentleness. He had a scar just below his hairline, which must have required stitches, and I wondered briefly how it’d gotten there. Dark hair curled over the collar of his shirt, not too long to keep him from looking respectable, but long enough that he could be a chameleon if he chose. I’d always loved those wild curls, and my fingertips twitched as I looked at them.

He was taller than the boy I’d last seen; wider too, but the hips locking me in the corner of that elevator car were still slim as daggers beneath tight black jeans, and his scent was the same heady mixture of spice and soap and musky heat that had always held me captive.

Like Pavlov’s dog, I damned near started to salivate.

“Hello, Ben,” I said, resisting the impulse to reach out and smooth an errant lock from his forehead. It was a pretty anticlimactic greeting after so many years. I swallowed self-consciously, aware his eyes had yet to leave my face. He was studying me, I knew, in the same way I’d studied him, and I managed a shaky smile and tried for something with a bit more flash. “That’s a hard…badge you’ve got there.”

He pulled away quickly, shifting so his chest was no longer touching mine, and I was instantly sorry I’d said anything at all. Staring down at the badge like he’d forgotten it was there, Ben shook his head as the elevator dutifully rang the fifth floor. The doors opened to the parking garage, and it was suddenly, oppressively, quiet.

“Christ, Jo,” Ben said, breaking the silence. “Are you okay?”

In the years since he’d last asked me that question, I’d become an expert at taking care of myself…and Ben had become a cop. One didn’t need a psychologist to tell you neither result was surprising. I’d been on my back in the ICU that first time, and he’d been sobbing, his adolescent face contorted with tears and guilt. But I knew Ben better than most, or had at one time, so I also knew regardless of what had happened to me—to him, and to us—a cop was what he was always meant to be.

Opening my arms in a courageous gesture that said “see for yourself,” I discovered I couldn’t stop them from shaking, and crossed them quickly over my chest. Still, I was obviously unharmed.

“God, when I saw that knife…” He lowered his forehead to the wall, shut his eyes, and let out a breath so deep he could have been holding it for years. He recovered himself almost immediately, though, straightening to his full seventy-four-inch height. “If I’d known the guy was armed I would have told my team to move sooner.”

“That would have been helpful,” I said jokingly, but I was suddenly reeling. You have your own team? How old were you when you made sergeant? What the hell are you doing here?

Do you still smile in your sleep?

“We’ve been tracking that guy for months,” Ben was saying. “He’s wanted for assault, battery, attempted rape, and God knows what else. He also cheats at craps—”

“The bastard.”

“—so we had to do this right. It had to go down smooth, but when I saw you in that restaurant—” He broke off and looked at me like it would have killed him to lose me all over again.

Suddenly the eight years, seven months, three weeks, five days, fifteen hours, and fistful of minutes since I’d last seen him dissolved into ether, meaningless dust. I realized the powerful, strong, and capable woman I’d proudly become would give anything to have Ben Traina look at me like that again. Pitiful, isn’t it? But true.

Then the sermon began. “Are you insane? What the hell are you thinking going out with a guy like that? You, of all people, should know better.”

My eyes narrowed. Two years older than me, and he’d always thought he had the right to lecture. “Well, I always could pick ’em.”

He only colored slightly at that, not the bright-cheeked blush I remembered. Good for him, I thought. All grown up, and even more overbearing.

“I see your cutting wit hasn’t dulled any.”

“Sharpened it just this morning,” I said. It used to be what you loved about me most.

He stared at me for a long moment, then shook his head and laughed. The low, rich sound touched me in all the right places.

“Come on,” he said, punching the elevator button that led back to the lower levels. “We have some serious talking to do.”

We returned to a hallway clogged with the shouts of police and medical personnel. Ajax was cuffed in spite of his injuries, and though he was looking the other way, his head immediately swiveled when I exited the elevator. Strange, but I didn’t have to wonder at that.

I could smell him too.

In salute to this shared intimacy, I blew him a victorious kiss. Ignoring the suddenly snarling and furious criminal writhing on the floor, Ben led me away, pushing through the voyeuristic and morbidly curious onlookers. Being of a practical nature, and somewhat of a voyeur myself, I took the opportunity to check out his ass. I sighed. Still fabulous.

And with that the foremost thought in my mind, I followed the first and only man I’d ever loved back into the chaos of Valhalla.


I’d never been able to hide anything from Benjamin Traina. We met when I was in fifth grade and he in seventh, when our bodies had held more similarities than not. We had a common passion for kickball and tag, and an equally strong hatred for a bully named Charles Tracy, whom we mercilessly dubbed Upchuck, and made

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