Lesa Boggs crouched in the inky shadows of a pickup truck. And not just any truck, Pete Vanko’s classic 1954 Chevy, rebuilt and lovingly restored.
At nearly one a.m., with only stars and a fingernail moon shining over the Eastern Washington countryside, the January night was dark and cold. But in the glow of the yard light outside the open shed, the truck’s sleek, rounded lines were visible.
For a long, aching moment Lesa stared up at the gleaming hulk, inhaling the scents of gasoline, leather upholstery, and a faint whiff of shaving cologne through the window, which he’d left cracked open.
God, the cab of his truck smelled just like him, the woodsy, spicy scent that blended with the pheromones given off by a big, muscular, virile male, enticing every woman within his reach. As if his blond Viking looks weren’t hot enough, he had to smell like walking sex as well.
She tipped her head down, blowing out a breath. Focus—she needed to focus on something else, anything else.
Such as the way he’d betrayed her.
She braced her left hand against the door, the metal smooth and cold as ice under her palm. A rock bit into her knee through her jeans. The small pain brought her back to her surroundings. To the ground under her feet, frozen hard by winter’s chill.
Across the drive loomed Pete’s big farmhouse, where he was probably lounging snugly by a fire, drinking one of his own micro-brews. Thinking himself safe from the people he stomped on, in his hard-headed drive toward his goals. People like her.
In Lesa’s right hand, she clutched a key, so tightly that one sharp edge dug into her palm. Her hands were nearly numb with cold—she wore her warmest jacket and boots over jeans and a sweater, but she’d forgotten her hat and gloves in her car. Betrayal would do that to a girl.
The sharp pain in her hand loosed the fiery ache of tears pressing behind her eyes. She sucked in a breath that turned to a shaky sob, and then fell to her knees, long hair falling about her face as she gave a low keen of grief.
She was such a failure. She couldn’t even do what she came out here to do—exact her revenge on Peter Vanko.
Everyone at The Hangar Brewpub & Grill knew he loved this truck, that he’d worked for months to restore it from a rusted hulk he’d found in an old barn. Now, though she couldn’t see well in the darkness under his carport, Lesa could picture the deep, glowing bronze of the truck’s body, the faint, red ghost flames and the Hangar’s red-white-and-blue emblem on the doors.
Pete drove into Airway Heights at least five days a week, Tuesday-Saturday, around ten a.m., one arm on the steering wheel, blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail below a baseball cap on sunny days, and aviator sunglasses shadowing his handsome, bearded face, his broad shoulders relaxed as he cruised the small-town roads. And on his way, he passed her tiny, rented house just off the main road as she was walking out her front door, having fed the stray cat that had taken up residence under her back porch, and swept the snow away from her front porch and walk.
At first she’d waved, but stopped after a few days because while he nodded back, he did so with a smirk that said he found her or perhaps her tiny house amusing. But she’d thought he liked her a little. That he at least respected her willingness to work hard and do whatever it took to help keep The Hangar’s business thriving and growing.
But clearly, he neither liked or respected her, because today, without any warning, he’d walked into the office and told her that she was fired.
She shuddered, remembering …
Earlier that day
She’d taken her lunch break at one o’clock, sitting at the end of the bar nearest the kitchen to eat one of Pico’s delicious burgers and a salad. Pico had prepared it just the way she liked it, the meat juicy and a little pink in the middle, the bun toasted on the grill, and laden with lettuce, tomato and dill pickle. Joe added a side of crisp, leafy salad with creamy blue cheese dressing, and three little paper cups of ketchup.
Both cooks had teased her while she ate, making her laugh and nearly spit out her salad.
“She prolly thinks she’s too good for us now that she’s the bookkeeper,” Joe called from the counter where he was prepping burger patties for the dinner rush.
“Yeah, she’s management now,” Pico agreed, giving Lesa a mock pout.
“That’s right,” she called back, once she swallowed. “Everyone knows the bean counter is the queen of any establishment.”
Joe held up a huge ring of raw, sweet onion. “Here, got a crown for ya, queenie.”
Lesa wrinkled her nose. “Nothing but the best for me, sir. If that’s my crown, I demand it be deep-fried to crispy, golden goodness.”
“That’ll make your hair smell interesting” Streak put in from behind the bar, where he was slicing oranges for hefeweizen-style beers. “Eau de onion, every man’s favorite.”
She finished her last bite of burger and wiped her fingers on her napkin, then sighed. “You’re right. I shall remain crown-less.”
“Prob’ly just as well,” Streak said, looking out the big windows at the parking lot out front. “’Cause here comes the former queen, and she’s jealous enough of you, I’d say.”
“A-and, time for me to go.” Carrying her plate, Lesa ducked into the kitchen and stacked it in one of the bus trays inside the big restaurant-sized dishwasher. She washed her hands at the sink there, and then hurried into the office, wondering why Marta was coming back here, after she’d been fired just days ago.
Well, big advantage, this was not her problem. Lesa set her glass of diet soda sitting on the narrow counter to one side of her desk, where even if it tipped over, it couldn’t spill on her keyboard or any other tech.
She’d spent the last few hours using Pete’s absence to peruse the manual for the Hangar’s on-line bookkeeping system. She planned to print herself a cheat sheet of keyboard commands and slip it into the desk’s top drawer where she could use it when needed.
Somehow, she could memorize dinner and drink orders for a table of seven, but not this program’s annoying key commands.
When her boss strode into the office an hour later, she jumped in her seat, startled by the abruptness of his appearance, but kept her eyes on the screen as she highlighted, copied and pasted the section of page she wanted.
Instead of moving over to his own desk, Pete stopped in front of her desk, and waited until she looked up. Lesa flinched at the forbidding scowl on his handsome face, and her lunch knotted in her stomach.
“Clean out your things,” he said, “And go. You’ll get a paycheck for the next two weeks, but I don’t want you in this office anymore.”
He hadn’t bothered to say this privately, either. He’d left his office door wide open, so everyone else there—the two grill cooks, the two waitress-barmaids, and Marta could hear.
Stunned as if he’d slapped her, her breath frozen in the icy void that was her chest, Lesa had barely been able to form the single word, “Why?”
In answer, his angled jaw clenching, eyes going even icier, Pete had flung two sheets of paper on the desk between them. Two balance sheets, showing costs for the same list of brewery and restaurant supplies. Only they didn’t match. On one sheet, the costs were higher, several amounts circled in red.
Shaking her head, Lesa looked up to find him watching her with the closed, pitiless glare of a man wronged by a trusted employee.
“But I didn’t,” she’d fumbled, her voice numb with shock. “I—I wouldn’t. I’m not a … a thief. I’m not!”
Oh god, oh god, oh god, not again!
“There’s no one else it could’ve been,” he’d said, his deep voice cold and clear.
Sure there was, and that woman was standing in the rear of the small group watching through the open office doorway. But when Lesa had opened her mouth to correct him, Pete had preempted her.
“You expect me to believe one of them did this?” he’d demanded, indicating their silent audience with a wave of his hand. “People I know much better than you? Not happening, so don’t bother giving me that wounded, innocent look. Just get your things and go.”
In shock, Lesa had cleaned the drawer of her desk, grabbed her coat, purse and the picture of her with her dad and two younger sisters, and stumbled out to the parking lot, past the wide-eyed stares of her fellow employees.
Pico and Joe, the two cooks, had given her looks of wounded sympathy. Aysha had sneered, while Sylvie looked away, face pinched as if Lesa had betrayed her personally.
Marta had watched Lesa’s every move, expression stoic, eyes avid.
Lesa’s own face had burned with humiliation, her eyes blurred with tears as she stumbled out of the brewpub into the bitter chill of the afternoon wind off the snow-covered prairie. She’d barely made it around the back corner before vomiting up her lunch onto the frozen ground, heaving until her stomach was empty, her mouth filled with bitterness.
Shuddering, she’d fumbled on her coat and stumbled home in a daze of shock and misery, unable to believe how quickly her dreams had once again exploded in her face.
It had taken her the rest of the afternoon and evening to figure out what had happened, but she’d done it. She knew who’d embezzled the money from the brewpub, and she knew why Peter Vanko had been so ready to blame her instead.
Because the embezzler was his former bookkeeper—had to be.
Marta, who strutted through the brewpub in the latest fashions, on stiletto heels, her hair and makeup always perfect. Who spoke with a Russian accent pretty as she was, and often lapsed intimately into her native tongue with Pete, and with his older brother Stick.
Marta, who had also been Pete’s lover, at least when Lesa had started working at The Hangar.
Until the last few weeks, when they’d all seen Pete ignoring the redhead while she cast wounded looks his way, and then flirted under his nose with other attractive men. To Lesa’s secret relief, he hadn’t seemed to mind. But he must have, if he didn’t want to believe Marta had stolen from him.
But Lesa had finally deciphered the strange look on Marta’s face earlier today—it had been a mix of guilt and relief, as if she couldn’t quite believe she’d gotten away with her crime. But who had more opportunity, and was angry enough to steal from Pete Vanko, than the woman he’d just tossed away like a used bar towel?
Now, crouched in the cold and dark, in Pete Vanko’s remote country farm yard, Lesa wept for the unfairness of it all, and especially for the fact that she couldn’t even exact her revenge.
Pete Vanko had humiliated her in front of her fellow employees, and the entire town. Lesa didn’t bother to kid herself that the news wasn’t all over Airway Heights by now. She’d have to leave, and find a job somewhere else.
And she liked it here, damn him. She’d had plans and dreams.
But she was also occasionally impulsive, and once she was really, truly angry, she acted on it.
Which brought her to back to here … and now.
She sucked in a long, shaky breath, and then froze as she heard a low, chilling sound in the shadows, the growl of a large dog.
Very slowly, Lesa turned her head.
“G-good dog,” she managed, her voice thick. “Good girl, Dima.”
A bulky, dark shape materialized in the narrow space between the truck and the side of the garage. As hot, moist breath assaulted her, Lesa lifted her hands in self-defense, not knowing what to expect.
With a deep groan, Pete’s big dog moved closer, crowding her against the wall, and proceeded to lick Lesa’s chin and ear with her long, wet tongue.
Dima was part German Shepherd and part who-knew-what. She was white, with touches of black and brown, and despite her forbidding size and looks, very friendly to people she knew.
She often accompanied Pete to work, wandering the non-public areas, the brewery and office and the graveled sweep behind the building or snoozing on a dog bed in Pete’s office.
The office Lesa had shared, for two short weeks. Dima had quickly spotted a sucker and interrupted Lesa on a regular basis to be petted, her big head butting Lesa’s arm until she gave in and gave the soft fur a good rub.
Still, Lesa hadn’t been sure if Dima would treat her differently tonight, as an uninvited night-time visitor.
“Ssh-hh,” Lesa pleaded now. “Quiet, girl. I’m g-glad to see you, too. Or at least I would be, if—oh, never mind. Let me out of here. I have to get going.”
“Now why,” drawled a deep voice from behind her, “Would I want her to let you out?”
Lesa gasped, horror stiffening her shoulders. As her hands went lax, Dima seized the chance to lick her other cheek, panting happily as if she couldn’t believe her luck in having Lesa down on her level.
A light shone into Lesa’s eyes, blinding her. She winced away from it, pushing at the dog’s big head as she gave Lesa’s cheek another wet swipe.
“Dima, heel,” Pete ordered.
With a regretful whine, the big dog backed away, leaving Lesa crouched alone.
She held up one hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the big flashlight, doing her best not to give into the humiliation that burned through her all over again. “Could you turn that thing off?”
“Sure.” His deep voice was heavy with irony. The flashlight flicked off, and an overhead light sprang on.
Swiping her wet face with the end of her sweater sleeve, Lesa peered cautiously around her arm.
Peter Vanko stood, one hand on the high wooden bed-rail of his truck, the other holding his flashlight. He filled the narrow space with an expanse of muscle and brawn, encased in faded jeans and a soft, brown corduroy shirt, the tails hanging loose. His hair was messy, as if he’d been running his hands through it.
He regarded her with a dark, indecipherable look on his bearded face, then moved. She flinched, but he merely bent toward her and held out one hand. “Come on. You can’t sit out here all night—you’ll freeze.”
She gave one hunted look over her shoulders at the dark night beckoning beyond the circle of light, and discarded with deep regret the idea of making a run for her car. He’d catch her in only a few steps, and that would be even more humiliating, if possible.
Ignoring the large, capable hand still held out to her, she scrambled to her feet.
His mouth quirked, in derision or regret. Her cheeks burning even hotter, Lesa looked down as she sidled toward him.
His hand, palm up, still barred her way.
She hesitated and then dropped the cheap, stamped key into his palm. It glinted in the light, ugly proof of her intent. His hand closed around it, and he turned away, walking ahead of her toward the lights of the big house across the short walkway. Ice and gravel crunched beneath their feet.
“Why didn’t you do it?” he asked over his shoulder.
She kept her head down as she followed him and the dog up onto the broad, covered porch. “Decided I wasn’t angry at your truck.”
He snorted. “As if a bitch would let that stop her.”
“Don’t call me a bitch.” It might be the common way for bikers to refer to women, but she didn’t like it
“Don’t act like one, and I won’t.” He held his house door open for her, and she walked through it, trying not to breathe as she passed him. Too late, as his scent, spicy, musky, quintessentially male filled her nostrils.
She stepped into his house, sighing in relief as warmth and light enveloped her. Her lonely, night trek along his road, with coyotes howling in the distance, had been scary as heck.
They were in a big, country kitchen, lamplight soft on a big granite island and surrounding cupboards and counters.
The heavy oak door closed behind them, the lock snicking into place with finality.
“Why didn’t you do it, Lesa? A few strokes of your pretty hands and you could’ve trashed my custom paint, cost me hundreds of dollars to get it re-done.”
She whirled, eyes wide. A confrontation, yes, she was prepared for that. But being locked in with him … that was a new twist. Did he intend to—to punish her in some way? She’d heard bikers didn’t mind getting physical with women.
He stepped forward, looming over her, the soft lamplight glinting off his blonde hair. “Answer me.”
She stared at the vee of his shirt collar, anywhere but his face. “Because I know how hard you worked to restore it,” she admitted. “And it’s beautiful.”
“Sure it wasn’t because I caught you before you got started?” he goaded, his deep voice silky with innuendo.
She lifted her chin at this, glaring up at him. His eyes gleamed under his heavy brows, mouth quirking.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I was—I was out there for nearly twenty minutes, and anyway, you didn’t catch me, Dima did.” God, that was lame. As if it mattered.
Grimacing, she looked away, only to have a warm, calloused thumb and forefinger grasp her chin and tip her head up, forcing her to meet his gaze. Her skin seemed to burn under his touch, sending heat flowing deep into her center.
She’d dreamed about his touch … but not like this.
“I know exactly how long you were out there,” he told her. “Dima and I watched you stop your car out by the trees, walk the rest of the way here, and into my shed.”
She blinked. “Y-you spied on me?”
His heavy brows flew up. “Spied on you? On my own property? Hardly, bezrassudnyy. And you have no fuckin’ idea how lucky you are that you didn’t do anything to my truck.”
Lesa quailed as he let go her chin and grasped her upper arms, his big hands closing around her as if to test the heft and strength of her. She flushed again, knowing that while fit, neither her arms nor the rest of her was exactly slender.
“You’re right, I didn’t key your truck,” she said defiantly. “And I didn’t steal money from your brewery, either—which you’d know, if you bothered to look at your brewery’s books before I arrived. The stealing didn’t start just when I showed up, or I would’ve noticed the difference. Maybe I should have a forensic accountant come and audit your books.”
“That’s quite a speech.” His gaze flicked down over her, his thick, gold tipped lashes shielding his eyes, although it seemed to her his gaze lingered on her breasts, round and full even under her layers of clothing. Heat traveled down through her, and to her horror she felt her breasts react to his gaze, her skin prickling as if he’d touched her, her nipples tightening under her thin bra.
He smirked again, as if he knew, even though he couldn’t possibly see through her jacket. Lesa pushed at him, twisting in his grip.
He held her easily, even pulled her closer to his heat and hardness. She needed to get away, now, because she couldn’t think clearly when he was this close.
“You need to let me go,” she told him. “I mean, what else can you do to me? You’ve already fired me.”
“What else can I do to you,” he repeated, almost to himself. He considered her question with mocking thoroughness, as alarm sent her heart pounding madly and arousal worked its dark magic on her treacherous body.
He let go of her right arm, but only to grasp a thick lock of hair, lying over her breast in a sleek, brown comma. He let it slip through his fingers, watching as if the motion fascinated him, and Lesa tried to swallow, her throat suddenly dry.
Then he looked up into her eyes, and she froze, like a doe in the grasp of a large predator.
“I can make you pay me back. I can use your talents,” he said lazily. “You can … please me. And then I’ll let you go.”
Lesa blinked. “P-please you?” she repeated faintly.
Did that mean what it sounded like? And why did the idea of pleasing him excite the hell out of her? She may have had a crush on him—a stupid, knee-weakening, panty-melting crush—but he’d killed it today. Crushed it under the heel of one of his big boots and ground it into the dust.
Her reaction to his nearness was just because she hadn’t had sex in months, that was all. Okay, more like a year. Her life had not exactly been conducive to dating since things started going downhill in the Tri-Cities.
His mouth quirked again, this time amusement clear in the crinkles at the corners of his eyes as he moved closer, crowding her back against the smooth marble edge of his kitchen island. How had he turned her and moved them here without her noticing?
“Da, pyshnyye moye. You can please me. An hour—or so—of your time, and you can be on your way, free as a bird.” He planted his hands on the counter on either side of her, caging her in heated, virile, oh-so-tempting male. “What do you say?”
An hour or more?
For one crazy moment, Lesa hesitated. She’d wanted him from the first moment she saw him, and it had only grown stronger over the weeks she’d worked for him, waiting tables and finally in her dream job as bookkeeper.
Also, it had been months since she had sex with anyone other than Big V, her vibrator.
And she’d certainly never had sex with a guy like him.