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THE FIRST KISS
Joe brought her to a halt next to her front door, and the atmosphere changed within the space of a breath. He let go of her hand and his gaze slid from her eyes to her lips, making her pulse jump.
"Good night, Naomi."
"Good night, Joe," she replied in a voice that was a lot softer and a lot less sleepy than it had been a minute ago.
Then he opened her front door and stepped out of her apartment, closing the door behind him.
Naomi stared at it, feeling like she'd awakened too fast from a fairy-tale dream.
That's why the knock didn't surprise her. She hadn't completed the transition to reality yet.
She opened the door. Joe was leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb, his hands in the pockets of his shorts.
"I forgot something."
I want you-- "Your phone?"
He shook his head slowly, his gaze never leaving hers.
--To kiss me. "Your car keys?"
He stepped into her apartment, leaving the door open behind him. The look in his eyes was neutral but observant. And what he was observing was her.
"Your wallet?" Her voice had dropped to a whisper. The urgency was building within her in slow motion, setting every cell into harmonic convergence. If he didn't touch her soon--
"Then what did you forget, Joe?" Kiss me, damn it, before I melt.
He slid his hands around her hips as her palms came to rest against the broad, warm wall of his chest.
Joe's heat, his scent, were heady and rich, and they enveloped her, pushing reality back into the shadows where it belonged. His lips were... perfect. Soft and exploratory; sweet, warm, and expert.
Her hands roamed upward, smoothing along his shoulders and the back of his neck until her fingers met amid the cool tangle of his hair. Opening her eyes for a moment, she saw only the crescents of dark gold lashes resting on the high curve of his cheek. It was a picture too appealing to be endured, and she closed her eyes again, only to feel the warning burn of approaching tears behind her lids.
His mouth left hers to trail along her jawline, then dipped to caress her throat and returned to tease her ear before he placed a final kiss in a spot that left her tingling, and whispered another "Good night."
Deep and dark, his midnight eyes held banked fires, and a finality that made her unclasp her hands and drop them to her sides. His hands lingered at her waist for only a moment more, then they were gone, leaving behind only their heat, which dissipated slowly.
She felt her mouth curve into a smile, felt her pulse slow. "That was awfully mannerly of you, Joe. Your mother raised you right," she said softly.
A twitch teased his lips. Those wonderful, talented lips.
"My mother had nothing to do with that." He paused and his amusement faded. "Good night, Naomi."
"Good night, Joe."
His gaze skimmed her face one more time, absorbing her, then he turned to the doorway and went through it, pulling the door firmly behind him.
Signet Eclipse ~ May 2006
Naomi Connor's plane had been sitting on the tarmac for twenty minutes while the ground agents for the outbound flight dealt with some diamond-draped woman making a fuss about her seat assignment. And until they resolved that and got the woman satisfied and ready to be strapped in, the other aircraft's passengers couldn't deplane. Which meant Joe had plenty of time to be bored out of his head at the miniscule airport in White Plains, New York, waiting to pick up Sarah's "security diva." He didn't really care what Sarah called her as long as she lived up to her reputation and didn't act like some over-educated, over-paid prima donna.
His eyes wandered around the waiting room populated with the usual suspects on a Saturday morning on the border of northern Westchester County, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut. Distinguished, buffed-up older men wearing Polo shorts and Tommy shirts roamed in tandem with young, thin, tanned trophy wives wearing as little as possible. They were followed by squads of toddlers wearing on everyone's nerves.
"Hey, Casey, what's up?"
Joe turned to see a uniformed cop at his side. "Hi, Todd. I'm just picking someone up. What's up with you?"
"Same old crap," the cop replied under his breath from behind an easy smile. "I was cruising the lot and saw Chas's truck up top. You picking him up? How's he handling civilian life?"
"No, he's in town. I just borrowed his truck. They had a baby a few months ago. I think he got more sleep when he was working nights," Joe replied with a grin as he watched the fussy woman finally head down the Jetway and the door close behind her. "Other than that, I'd say he likes it fine."
They stood in an easy silence for a moment, watching the small crowd.
"It's about time," Joe muttered after a tinny female voice announced that the flight from Washington, D.C. was arriving through gate 2.
"So who are you picking up? New girlfriend? This stage never lasts. Trust me. In a month from now, you'll be telling her to take her own damned car."
Joe gave him a sidelong glance. "If you're having woman troubles, Todd, I don't want to know about it. I never could figure out what Vicky saw in you in the first place. And not that it's any of your business, but I'm picking up a consultant we hired. We changed the location of the meeting and I couldn't get in touch with her on her cell phone, so I thought I'd pick her up to save the hassle."
"What's she look like?"
"Don't know. She's a computer consultant, so I'm not holding my breath," he said with a shrug.
"That one?" The cop tipped his head slightly at the tall, thin, earnest-looking jeans-clad woman with the backpack who was the first to emerge from the Jetway doors.
"Probably." Joe held up the small sign he'd made with Naomi's name on it.
The woman glanced at it, then at him, and smiled. And kept walking.
"You look like a chauffeur," the cop cracked.
"Could be because I feel like one," Joe replied under his breath.
"See you later. Good luck with the geek." The cop walked toward the small desk near the security area where a few of his colleagues were gathered.
Keeping the sign in plain view, Joe watched a grandmother, a few college kids, and two businessmen come through the doors. In unison, both men stopped to hold open the doors for the woman behind them.
Soft was the best word he could come up with to describe her. Not that it did her justice, but it was accurate. There wasn't a hard edge in sight. Not in her clothes, not in her smile, not in the way she held herself. Her body, her movements were relaxed and self-assured and radiated something more than the confidence of a woman who's beautiful and knows it; something elusive and sexy as hell.
A cloud of loose blond curls framed her face as she turned to make a low, laughing comment to the men. Judging by their dazed expressions, it was more than they'd expected to get. She, on the other hand, looked like a woman who always got everything she wanted.
Before she had to ask.
Damned if it didn't just figure that he'd lay eyes on the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen while he was waiting to pick up some nerdy digital-security wizard. Given Sarah's warped sense of humor, she'd be high-end Mensa material but your basic absentminded academic type.
She's probably still on board now, so absorbed by her Blackberry that she doesn't realize she's on the ground.
Just as well. The wait would allow him a few more uninterrupted minutes to contemplate the Botticelli blonde with her movie-star stroll and in-on-the-secret smile, who was walking toward-- him?
The Jetway was a blessedly cool change from the heat of the tarmac Naomi had had to cross moments earlier. The small plane had parked far enough away from the building that the walk to the terminal had changed her from a smooth, polished professional into a soggy, shiny professional. It hadn't been this muggy in Washington all week, and if she'd had a clue it would be this humid or this hot up here, she wouldn't have worn a suit, or at least not a silk suit. A pale silk suit that was now wrinkled beyond all reason.
Some good first impression I'll make. Smart enough to hack a secure network, but not smart enough to turn on the Weather Channel.
The wrinkles and the weather were two complications she just didn't need. They were two chinks in her business armor, which might already be too thin for what she was about to face. In one of their e-mail exchanges earlier in the week, Joe Casey had indicated he'd be at today's meeting. Her stomach had been in knots ever since. With any luck, though, he'd breeze in for a quick meet-and-greet like every other CTO she'd ever worked with, and then leave her team alone to do their job. Get in and get out as fast as possible; that was her goal. She wanted Brennan Shipping Industries on her résumé instead of on her conscience.
Stepping over the threshold of the terminal, she thanked the men who'd stopped to hold open the doors for her and flashed them a grateful smile. It faded slightly as she turned away to see a large man holding up a small sign.
Anyone would have noticed him.
Make that everyone.
The man had serious reproductive potential written all over him, from the top of his windblown, sun-streaked blond hair, to those smoky blue eyes that were focused on her, to the embroidered yellow Brennan Shipping Industries logo on the dark blue golf shirt that covered a broad chest. She couldn't deny that the sight of him had her ovaries vibrating in a two-part harmony, but there was something else that drew Naomi to him more strongly than any pheromone could.
The sign he was holding had her name on it.
Not only was she walking into her personal ground zero, but she'd just lost her getaway car.
Like I don't have enough on my mind.
She squared her shoulders and, quelling the natural -- make that primitive -- flutter in her stomach, she approached the man with the sign.
"Hi. That's me," she said with a smile, tapping one long, hot-pink fingernail against the sign he held. "You've caught me by surprise. Nobody said anything about being met. I have a rental car reserved."
He blinked at her, and it took him a few seconds to respond. "You're Naomi?"
"I was last time I checked," she drawled. She should have been used to it by this stage of her career, hearing that shade of disbelief in a man's voice when confronted with the notion that a woman who had blond hair and big breasts, who wore makeup and high heels, could actually also have a functioning brain. She should have been able to ignore it, but the truth was that it never failed to sting.
Then he smiled. "I'm Joe."
She took the opportunity to blink back at him and managed to keep her mouth from falling open as the full meaning of those two words sunk in. "You're Joe? Joe Casey?"
He nodded, turning his smile into a short, silent laugh. "I guess we're equally surprised. You don't fit the stereotype I was expecting to see, either."
The voice was the same but this was not the man she'd pictured during the few brief phone calls they'd had this week. That guy was the standard-model chief technology officer: middle-aged, gone to paunch, and balding. Appropriately dull and moderately boring. And shorter. Definitely shorter. The man with whom she'd been communicating all week was definitely not a Nordic sun god with a smile that could blind a girl.
But, of course, he was indeed exactly that. Mother Nature obviously had it in for her today.