I rounded the final stairwell, expecting to find him parked outside in the Hummer.
He was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, hand on the newel post, looking up. Looking incredible. Tall, dark, and the precise flavor of the danger I find so addictive. Standing there like we were going on a date or something. I was instantly assaulted by conflicting emotions.
I’d dreamed of seeing him standing there, somewhere, anywhere in my world again. And I was so damned angry, I couldn’t process the complexity of it. I’m smart enough to know I can also be as emotionally myopic as Mr. Magoo is nearsighted. The more something matters to me, the less I understand how I feel about it. Mac used to help me with that. For the hundredth time I wished she were here to talk to. I missed her so much. “You could have waited in the car,” I said tonelessly.
“I bloody well know what I can and can’t do, and don’t pull Jada-voice on me. I came to see Dani tonight.”
Ryodan is beautiful. Not like Barrons, who’s beautiful in a perfectly imperfect way, far more animalistic than man. You see the beast first in Barrons. You have to hunt for it in Ryodan, who pours a flawlessly human skin over his animal form, meticulously aware of precisely where each atom of his being is in relation to the world around him. He has a heightened, absolute awareness I covet and emulate. He’s liquid grace when he moves. I’m damned close to it. I’ve admired him since the day I met him. Used to study him when he wasn’t watching me. I once spent eight infernal hours trapped in his office, watching his dark head bent over paperwork, absorbing every detail of his profile, trying to figure out some way to shatter that infernal calm and grace, make that controlled face explode into uncontrolled emotion. Make him act like I always felt around him.
It hadn’t eluded me that the first man to draw my gaze after Dancer died—at six feet four inches and 240 pounds, with short dark hair—resembled Ryodan. There are two types of men I’m attracted to and they’re rare as hell: brilliant, sexy, full of wonder, pure as a wide-open sky and easy to be around; or brilliant, sexy, inhumanly strong, carved by ruthless experience and difficult to handle. I like extremes.
Ryodan was dark and elegant, his powerful body poured into a charcoal Versace suit, a subtly embossed white shirt, a silver and black tie that matched his eyes, wide cuff glinting at his wrist, the tips of intricate tattoos peeking above his crisp white collar, dark Italian shoes. He was as dichotomous as his club, sophistication on the surface, primal beast beneath. His jaw was dusted with dark stubble, and—I inhaled lightly—he smelled good. I didn’t remember him smelling so good. The wan light of the single bulb illuminating the foyer behind him shadowed the regal bone structure of his face. Primordial, polished, pain-in-the-ass man that never fails to rattle me. Or make me feel painfully alive. I want him. He drives me batshit crazy.
He held my gaze a long moment. Beautiful by any standards, in any century, on any world, woman, his eyes said.
I willed my eyes blank. Emerald shallows lapping gently at a shore. Not a tsunami out of control.
As I began to descend the last flight, he said, “What did you miss the most about me, Dani?”
Aside from that dark-velvet, exotically accented voice, his clear, unfiltered way of seeing me; his ability to kick my brain up into a higher gear; his endless challenges; and how he always seemed to understand what I was feeling, even when I didn’t? “Clever,” I said coolly. “?‘Most’ implies that I missed many things. I didn’t think about you at all.”
“You need to stop boxing the things that disturb you.”
I narrowed my eyes. “How I organize my brain is none of your business.”
“It is when I’m the recipient of the resultant chaos.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“When you refuse to think about an issue, it remains unchanged, in precisely the same state as you tucked it away.”
“Precisely the point of boxing it. The issue dies. Can no longer affect you. It’s a damned effective tactic.”
“Short-term, yes. Long-term, a recipe for disaster. When you next encounter whatever you boxed your feelings about, you’re ambushed by repressed, unresolved emotion.”
“Your point eludes me,” I said stiffly. It didn’t. I just didn’t like it. No one ever called me on my shit. I’d gotten used to that. I’d missed that about him. Even as I resented his logic for being so bloody logical.
“If you’d thought about me while I was away, you wouldn’t have been a perfect storm of oppositional desires at Chester’s this morning.”
Truth. Wasn’t about to admit it. “It had nothing to do with you. I was PMS and hungry.”
He smiled faintly. “I see. So, that’s how we’re going to play it. Commando or thong?”
My face screwed into an instant scowl. “What?”
He laughed. “Ah, Dani, that’s one of the many things I missed about you. When your eyes flash, your skin flushes, and you’re even more fucking beautiful. I used to picture your face while I was gone, when you were on one of your rants, stalking, fierce, and high-tempered. I missed it. Tell me something you missed about me. I must have slipped out of your box every now and then.”
I gave him a stony look. He’d pictured my face while he was gone? Then why hadn’t he called? I wasn’t a woman to be softened with a few nice words after two bloody endless years of silence. Two years in which he’d showed me precisely how little I meant to him.
As I neared the bottom of the staircase, he said, “We need a few rules.”
“I don’t do rules.” Not true. I had an elaborate set of my own. “And certainly not yours.”
“Ours,” he corrected. “Mutually agreed upon. Rule number six—”
“What are rules one through five? Do I get to make those up?” I had a list ready.
“We’ll get to those. I was merely making the point that this particular rule isn’t the most important between us. The next time—”
“And, of course, you’re the one who gets to decide what’s most important.”
“—you want to blow off steam, say the word. I’ve got a fully outfitted sparring gym at Chester’s—”
“Level seven. Boxing ring, every weapon imaginable. I exploded all your punching bags. I took your guns, too. Oh, and those cool studded leather gloves with the recessed blades.”
“—where we can glove up and spar, you little snoop. In private.”
I was getting mad again. He sees right through me. He was right and that pissed me off even more. Putting him in a mental compartment had, indeed, left me unprepared for his return. He was here now but I was still stuck two years ago, in a cemetery, hurt and angry, with two years of additional hurt and anger heaped on top of it. I needed to address that quickly, and physical activity always helps me think. “Fine. Let’s go now.”
“And forgo a night with you in that dress? Not a chance. We’ll have our date first.”
“People like you and me, and I use that term loosely in reference to you, don’t date. And rule, definition: something you don’t break and certainly not the first time out of the gate. Clearly, no one but you gets to invoke the rules. Typical. You’re always the only one allowed to make the decisions.”
“Ah, and now we’re finally getting to your point,” he murmured.
I descended the final step. “No, we’re not. And it’s commando. Friction’s a bitch when I freeze-frame. Nothing under here but skin, babe.”
His laughter was soft, husky, and dangerous. “Battle engaged. Babe.”
Raw current arced between us as I swept past him. I channeled that energy into a powerful, long-legged stride outside, feeling his gaze scorch my ass all the way to the car.
And that pissed me off, too. Not that he was staring at my ass. He should be. It looked terrific. The car. It was a matte black Ferrari. Sleek, sexy. Date material.
“What’s wrong with the Hummer?” I demanded.
“You’d look like one of those women ascending the ladder at Chester’s trying to climb in it.”
He had a point. “My hands aren’t broken,” I said when he beat me to the car in that inhuman glide of his and opened the door for me.
“Ah, for fuck’s sake, Dani, enjoy the night. It’s a beautiful one. The sky’s velvet, clear. Look at all those bloody stars.”
His words were soft, modulated as ever, but he slammed the door before stalking to the driver’s side.
I smiled faintly as I tipped my face up and glanced through the windshield at a cobalt sky, not a rain cloud in sight, not a wisp of fog, just stars glittering like diamonds on dark velvet. I’d gotten a slam out of him. A stalk. Tension ratcheting up in his body as he passed through the headlights. Life was good.
When he slid behind the wheel and started the car, the deep sexy purr of the engine was drowned out by a sudden blast of ear-shattering music, especially to someone who hears as well as me. The bass was so loud it nearly vibrated me out of the seat.
I knew that song. I loved that song.