When her photographer had called first thing
this morning, Livia had decided not to talk. Oh, she’d given him
the address to Cigar Paolo, the cigar and billiards lounge where she’d
chosen to meet him for drinks.
She liked the rich smoky ambience, the low glow of the lights, the intoxicating
glow brought on by the fabulous house wine. It was a perfect place for
quiet conversation, low-keyed, laid-back, the constant hum of customers’ voices
punctuated only by the break of balls on the handcrafted tables.
The reason she had decided not to talk when he called was twofold. First,
she hadn’t slept much last night, and he’d called way too
early. She hadn’t been ready or awake enough to carry on a lucid
Second, she wanted their discussion to happen in person, not on the
phone. A phone meant distance, and that was the last thing she wanted.
There were too many things bound to come up between them that were best
dealt with face to face.
She thought she might arrive before him, which would give her time to
find a table to best work to her advantage, but as she approached the
front door, she found him leaning against the wall, waiting.
“I don’t think you and I define casual in the same way,” he
said, his gaze sliding over her approvingly.
“You look great,” she said, and meant it. So what if he
was underdressed to her over? He looked great in his flax-colored linen
pants, white dress shirt left open at the throat, and boxy brown blazer
sans tie. “I’m impressed. And surprised. I expected to see
you in blue jeans.”
But about that tie. Oh, she wished he’d been wearing one. She
wanted to reach up and loosen the knot, to free the button behind it,
to dip her tongue into the hollow of his throat and taste his warm flesh,
the salt, the skin.
He made her hungry in ways she hadn’t felt in a very long time.
No. He made her hungry in ways she’d never felt before. It was
a bit surreal, this longing, this ache.
“You’re lucky I had access to a closet stocked in my size,
or else blue jeans would’ve been it.”
She brushed at his lapel. Nothing there, of course. She just . . . brushed. “Your
“Not exactly. I’m staying in a borrowed condo on the beach
while I’m here.”
Wait. He didn’t live in Miami? She was getting worked up over
someone who would be leaving her soon? Her fingers drifted down the front
of his coat and away. “Where do you live?”
He pushed off the wall, caught the wrist of her hand before she got
too far. “I think there are a few other questions and answers we
need to get out of the way first.”
She watched the upward wing of his dark brows as he waited for her to
read his mind. It wasn’t that hard to do, really. But the heat
of his palm against her skin had her thinking of pleasure over practicalities.
Oh, what trouble she was flirting with here.
She pulled her arm from his hold until their hands met. She grasped
his firmly and shook, the official introduction, getting names out of
the way so the fun could begin. “Olivia Hammond. And you are?”
“Finn McLain,” he told her, offering his name and no more,
releasing her hand sooner than she would have liked. He stuffed his fists
into his pockets, turned and swung out one elbow, waiting, grinning,
a big Cheshire cat.
She smiled, slipped her arm though his and let him escort her inside.
The lounge was roomy, but the low ceilings and strategically scattered
clusters of sofas and club chairs added a coziness to the ambience that
made it easy to think they’d been friends forever. The hostess
led them to a small circular table and signaled for their server.
Livia chose the seat with better exposure to the room and let Finn sit
with his back to the wall. She’d been here before, had seen all
there was to see of the lounge. She was much more interested in the crowd – the
men watching the women, the women watching the men watch them – and
thought Finn could learn a lot from the view.
Once they were settled, she set her small clutch on the table and reached
both hands across it. “You don’t live in Miami, and you’re
wearing another man’s clothes. Do I have that much right?”
“You do,” he said with a nod, adding, “But it’s
not the dire situation it seems.”
“Meaning you’re not a homeless vagabond?”
“You’re just a photographer on assignment?” And
once you’ve finished up, I’ll never see you again? A strange thought
to be thinking. She didn’t know him. She shouldn’t care.
But damn if that wasn’t a jolt she was feeling.
“I’m on assignment, yes, but I’m not a photographer.
Not professionally. And I figured it would be good to get that cleared
up right off the bat.” He ran a finger along the edge of the crystal
votive tray that held three floating candles and was positioned between
his hands and hers. “I didn’t want you paying for drinks
under false pretenses.”
The false pretenses being that they were here to talk about her hiring
him. He had honesty going for him at least. She’d get back to the
terms of their working relationship later because, yeah.
She still wanted to see the impact their chemistry had on what he could
do with his camera because it was wreaking no small bit of havoc down
her spine. “So, who owns the clothes, and where do you live?”
“The clothes belong to my client. He’s putting me up while
I’m here. He brought me up from Key Largo. That’s where my
office is, and where I live.”
Key Largo. That was so much closer than the Atlanta or Charleston or
Louisville she’d thought she’d hear, though his accent was
generic and gave nothing away. She found herself breathing a sigh of
relief which was so unlike her, because how far away he lived wasn’t
the issue his profession was.
She went after that next. “And if you’re not a photographer
. . .”
He waited to answer while their server set their drinks on the table,
and continued to wait while Livia stood to slip out of her jacket and
drape it over the back of her chair. She moved just so, leaning, turning,
and knew as she returned to her seat that she had more eyes than Finn’s
eating her up.
He braced his elbows on the table and leaned forward, one corner of
his mouth curling up in wicked humor. “Did you know that you’re
wearing a scarf?”
She nodded, feeling her nipples tighten beneath the slick silk as an
air-conditioned breeze blew beneath. She stroked a hand over the triangle
of fabric, tugging on the tip that hung just above her navel.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? I found the designer in
Little Havana. Each piece is unique. She makes them from scraps and irregular
bolts her family’s tailor shop can’t use.” She knew
she was covered. The scarf was knotted in back, the triangle secured
like a bandeau above her breasts.
But, yes. If the wind kicked up and lifted the fabric, or she moved
without taking care . . .
“It’s definitely something,” he said, picking up his
wineglass, swirling the deep red merlot. “It’s also hell
on the imagination, but then being in fashion and the business of letting
people look, I’m assuming you know that.”
She studied his eyes, holding his gaze as he drank. An astute man, this
Finn McLain. One who wouldn’t expect her to affirm or deny his
assumption. One who simply said what he was thinking and counted himself
And so she crossed her legs, held the bowl of her wineglass in one hand,
toyed with the stem using the fingers of the other, prompting again, “And
if you’re not a photographer . . .”
“I’m an investigator.”
Hmm. “For a competitor of mine?”
He shook his head, leaned closer. “I work privately, meaning that’s
all I’m going to say, because everything else is –” he
gave her a wink “— private.”
She made herself a mental note to Google Finn McLain and Key Largo,
see if he advertised, or if he was private enough to be off the grid.
She wondered if he was, and if that meant she was wooing more danger
than she had the pluck to handle. “Can I hire you as an investigator
then? If you’d prefer not to hire out as a photographer?”
“I didn’t say that. I just wanted you to know my photography
skills are pretty basic. Enough to get the job done when I’m working,
but I don’t have a studio, and my not have the equipment for what
you want. It’s hard to say since I don’t know exactly what
She’d told him what she wanted, what Dustin wanted, but she’d
also promised to give him the rest of the story tonight. “The friend
I mentioned, the one who wants the pictures –”
“And owns the gallery.”
She nodded at his interruption. “He specializes in erotic art.
“Photographs of women who let people look.”
“That, too,” she said, and thought, “Touché.”
Finn considered her over the rim of his glass. “He wants to display
pictures of you doing what you do.”
“Yes,” she said, and nodded again. “But he also wants
to capture the reactions of those doing the looking.”
“And even though I’ve admitted I’m not a professional
photographer, you think I can give him this?”
“Yes.” If she had to explain about chemistry, she would,
but as sharp as he was, she was quite sure such an explanation wouldn’t
be necessary. “The photos wouldn’t be staged, but would be
me in action.”
“Meaning I’d follow you and hope and pray for a money shot.
Or two or three.”
“Hopefully a couple of dozen.”
“You got that much in you? I mean, you know how much time it could
take to get that lucky?”
He could try, but he wasn’t going to get to her. Tonight, she
was game on. “If you’re worried that I’m expecting
your services gratis in exchange for whatever meager thrill the assignment
offers, don’t be. You’ll send me a bill. I’ll pay it.
I consider this a professional association.”
“What do you consider yesterday?” he asked.
Ah, yes. This part. Yesterday. Funny, because she hadn’t yet settled
that herself. She raised her glass, sipped, reflected on how best to
explain the desire that had driven her. Then decided not to. She preferred
the position of control, and the mystery put her there.
“Did you get anything worth showing me?” she asked, and
when he played cagey, remaining mum, she prodded. “You were taking
pictures, weren’t you?”
“I was working. I took a lot,” he said, and left it at that.
Noncommittal. Giving nothing away.
She should’ve left it at that as well, kept her position in the
driver’s seat. But she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
She’d never taken orders from a stranger before, had never done
the things she did for a reason that wasn’t a power play, and a
calculated one at that. She didn’t want to think what it meant
that she’d broken her own rules because of this man.
She sat back, toyed with the tip of the scarf where it fluttered against
her belly. “I wasn’t asking about whatever investigation
brings you to town. I was asking if you were taking pictures of me.”
He looked down at the table, still leaning on one forearm, twirling
his wineglass by the base. “I was. I stopped before you lost your
His gaze came up. “Actually, I was. You’re beautiful. And
you’re . . . pierced.”
“In all the right places,” she said with a small laugh. “Is
that going to be a problem if I hire you?”
“You being pierced?”
“No.” She shook her head, felt her hair tickling her bare
shoulders, wondered if he’d like her to tickle him, too. “You
being too distracted to go after your money shots.”
He hesitated, bit back . . . something. “I have about ten million
questions, you know.”
“Number one being why do I do it?”
He inclined his head.
What she did was a complicated piece of who she was, what she’d
learned about herself and about making her way in the world. The therapist
she’d seen for a year a dozen or so ago would probably have given
a different answer than hers. But she’d grown up since then, and
had done a better job figuring herself out than the therapist ever had.
At the sound of billiard balls breaking on a table nearby, she turned,
watched the mixed foursome start their game before coming up with an
answer that she could live with, and that he would have to. “Let’s
just say it fulfills a need.”
“One that’s not completely sexual,” he added, the
warm overhead light picking up the edges of his smile.
“Give the man a cigar.” Oh, but he pleased her.
“I don’t need one.” He nodded to a table of five rowdy
businessmen who preferred bourbon to wine and above whose table hovered
a milky-blue cloud of smoke. “I’m doing fine breathing in
The group had drawn more than a few dirty looks from the club’s
other patrons, but with the money they were so obviously tossing around,
Livia couldn’t see management saying a word unless they accosted
someone physically. However . . .
“Will you excuse me for a moment?” she asked of Finn, getting
to her feet. “I need to visit the ladies’ room.”
“No problem,” he said, watching as she adjusted the drape
of her gold belly chain where it hung loosely from the ring in her navel
and rode above the hip-hugging waistband of her pants. “I’ll
order another round. Same thing?”
“I think I’d like a mojito,” she said, walking away
with a wink she knew would keep him guessing.
Her trip to the ladies’ room would having her passing behind the
table of players. It wouldn’t take much to catch their collective
eye; for thirty minutes, she’d been watching them come on to every
woman walking by.
She kept her gaze averted from where they sat, fondled the chain circling
her belly, timed her sidestep to dodge their approaching server as perfectly
as she’d hoped. And then . . .
“Excuse me,” she said, stumbling between two of the men
and backing into the table, the slant of the triangular scarf giving
the closest members of her audience a bird’s eye view of the curving
swells of her breasts.
She leaned forward to ostensibly check the heel of her shoe, her top
falling away and fully exposing her bare chest to the group. She twisted
her hips one way, canted her waist another, then when the table had gone
silent, straightened and gave the crowd of five a winsome smile.
“I think I snagged a pit in the floor with my heel. I’m
not usually so clumsy. Please forgive the interruption.” And then
leaving them with a smile, she made her way to the ladies’ room
where she washed her hands before returning to take her seat across the
table from Finn.
He sat sprawled in his chair as if watching a sports event. She half
expected him to applaud. “So your trip to the ladies’ room
was a ruse with ulterior motives?”
“It was,” she said, shifting to sit at an angle, cocking
her elbow on the back of her seat.
He sat shaking his head. “I figured you’d end up with a
round of wolf whistles and cat calls for your trouble.”
“It was an educated gamble.”
“The ambience of the place. They’re players. Too self-important
to want to be seen stooping to such a common denominator.” She
gestured to take in the whole of the lounge, then reached for her glass
and sipped her mojito, the cool nip of mint soothing her throat.
She went on. “Also, they don’t know whether to call attention
to what they’ve seen. They don’t know if I’m aware
of what I’ve done, or what I might be expecting from them, In this
case, they gave me exactly what I wanted.”
She tilted her head as if listening. “So far, so good.”
“Some people might say you’re a prick tease.”
Some had. Some had taken it personally, tried to prove it, to give her
what they said she was asking for. “Those some would be wrong.
It’s not about sex.”
“I’m not so sure,” he said, leaning forward again,
toying again with the tray of votives.
She pressed her lips together, watched the movement of his fingers along
the blown glass. “If I sat on the lap of the closest man, wrapped
my arms around his neck and rubbed up against him, that would be about
He bobbed his head as if weighing her reply. “You’re only
looking at what it means to you, not what it means to the group on the
receiving end of your . . . gift.”
“What it means to them isn’t within my control,” she
told him sharply. “And they’re not always guys.”
He didn’t say anything more after that, not for several long moments,
opting instead to give surreptitious regard to the table of men who were
no longer rowdy, but intent on their drink and cigars.
As shrewd as he was, he was still a man. She didn’t expect him
to share her viewpoint. Men as a rule stuck together, had each others’ backs
in a team mentality, a gang mindset rather than standing their own ground.
It was why she was able to manipulate them so easily. She’d learned
them well, knew where one went the others would follow.
His gaze came up, held hers. “What do the men you date think about
the burlesque show?”
Her drink that had been cooling now began to burn. “Is that what
it looked like to you? A show?”
“A show for a particular and private audience, sure. Not a general
admission performance. But letting people look would make it a show,
yeah.” He paused, his eyes darkening, demanding. “So your
guys. Do they know? Do they care? Do they play along, knowing you’ll
be going home with them?”
She was beginning to wonder if this was all a big mistake. Wondering
what he thought of her, why she cared. Because it was obvious from the
unsettled state of her stomach, that she cared about his opinion too
“It’s a moot point since I don’t date. Now, do you
want to talk business or not?”