Dark of Night

Prologue

Sophia kissed him.

Dave Malkoff sat there, on a standard-issue stool in a generic travelers’ bar off the lobby of an equally unremarkable Sacramento hotel, as Sophia. Kissed. Him.

It wasn’t an accident. She hadn’t lost her balance and bumped into his lips with hers. No, no, that was her tongue lazily but quite intentionally exploring the inside of his mouth, her fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck, her lovely, lithe body pressing against him until she hit the barrier of the wooden seat between his open legs and could get no closer.

She tasted both sweet and salty, like the wine she’d been drinking mere moments ago, like the tears he knew she’d shed when the news had come down that James Nash was dead.

Dave’s stomach twisted and his heart clenched, and he almost – almost – pulled away to ask Sophia if this – this kiss, this embrace – was some kind of knee-jerk reaction to her grief over the loss of their friend and co-worker.

Co-worker.

The word made it sound as if he and Sophia and Nash had adjoining cubicles in some fluorescent-lit office somewhere. Instead, their co-worker had been gunned down as a result of their Troubleshooters Incorporated team – with Dave as reluctant leader – having taken on a no-pay assignment that went bad.

And yes, thanks in part to Nash’s sacrifice, the rest of the team was finally safe – including all of the hostages that had been taken.

Hostages that included Sophia Ghaffari.

Who was now kissing him.

Him. As in David Malkoff.

She was kissing him as a direct result of his having, earlier that day, blurted out the fact that he was in love with her, making this entire situation even that much more bizarre.

It was only in his wildest dreams that he’d ever imagined confessing his feelings. He and Sophia were friends, buddies, pals. For years, he’d been terrified of ruining their comfortable relationship by revealing the pathetic truth. For years, he’d convinced himself that he was content to love this incredible woman from afar – to keep his feelings for her hidden, unrequited and pure.

And in those wildest dreams, if he did fantasize summoning the courage to speak his heart, he’d never imagined her reacting with anything other than kindness. She’d wince at the thought of hurting him, then gently pat his hand while telling him how much she valued his loyalty and friendship.

The idea that she might actually consider his announcement something of value, and then try to touch his tonsils with her tongue, had never, ever crossed his boggled mind.

And yet, this was the reality in which he now lived.

A reality in which her breasts were soft against his chest. A reality in which she angled her head and opened her mouth wider so that he could lick his way into her mouth. And dear God, the sensation of Sophia’s tongue against his own flooded him with a wave of heat and need so intense his knees went weak – thank God he was sitting down.

And still she kissed him, right there in that extremely public bar, in the very hotel where a large number of their other co-workers from Troubleshooters Incorporated were also staying. Anyone could walk in and see them. Their boss, Tom Paoletti. Tom’s second-in-command, Alyssa Locke. Their mutual friend and James Nash’s former partner, Lawrence Decker.

And okay, thinking about Decker instead of focusing his full attention on the fact that he was kissing Sophia was probably not the smartest thing Dave had ever done.

Sure enough, as if she’d read his mind, Sophia finally ended the kiss.

She pulled back, the tip of her tongue a pink flash against her lips, as if she were savoring the taste of him — though she was more likely cleaning up any excess saliva he’d left behind because, face it, when it came to kissing, he was sorely out of practice. But then there they were, his heart damn near pounding out of his chest, that soft lower lip he’d just thoroughly and intimately enjoyed now caught between Sophia’s teeth as she gazed searchingly at him, a question — or maybe it was just blanket uncertainty — in her crystal blue eyes.

Dave had to laugh, because the idea that she could kiss him like that and remain at all doubtful as to his enthusiastically positive response was ridiculous.

His arms were still around her. She was still standing between his legs, her fingers still playing with his hair, which felt about four million times better than he’d ever imagined. She smiled then, too, laughter lines crinkling the corners of eyes that both glistened with sadness and sparkled with life. She was so beautiful – and even more gorgeous inside, in her generous soul – that he couldn’t speak.

So he kissed her again.

As he lowered his mouth to hers, before he closed his eyes, he caught a glimpse of Sam Starrett – a co-worker from the San Diego office and husband to company XO Alyssa Locke — in the mirror behind the bar.

“Whoa,” he was pretty sure he heard Sam say as the kiss Dave had intended to be as sweet and tender as the one Sophia had just given him turned into something else. Something molten and powerful and scary as hell – or it would have been had this woman not turned to fire in his arms. She was kissing him back with the same amount of need, molding herself to him even as he damn near crushed her in his arms.

And when he pulled back — because, God! – she was breathing as hard as he was. Again, she just stood there, this time her forehead pressed against his as she labored to catch her breath.

“We should probably…um…” Dave couldn’t do more than whisper, couldn’t really figure out what they should do, other than get out of there, because, yes, that was Alyssa in the lobby right outside the bar door, talking on her cell phone.

“Go.” Sophia finished his sentence for him, pulling back to nod her agreement.

Somehow Dave let go of her, and she gathered up her jacket – a huge Windbreaker that one of the paramedics had given her some hours ago, to ward off the chill of the evening in the mountains. She also took her wineglass and his mug of beer, both of which had magically been refilled, no doubt by the attentive barkeep, and headed briskly for the door.

Dave couldn’t walk out of there without adjusting his pants, so he tried to do it surreptitiously – and failed. It was a stare-into-space, grab-and-pull kind of move, only he managed to meet Sam Starrett’s eyes in the bar mirror. Dave quickly looked away, but it was too late. He saw speculation in the former SEAL’s eyes. Surprise was there, too — a heavy dollop of Sophia’s with Malkoff? No way... But it was the speculation – where were they going and what were they going to do when they got there? — that bothered Dave and made him stop at Starrett’s bar stool instead of following Sophia out the door.

“It’s been a long day,” Dave told his immediate superior’s husband. “I’m just going to see Sophia up to her room.”

Almost as handsome as James Nash had been, Starrett was Texas-born and -raised, with a cowboy drawl and good ol’ boy attitude, both of which came and went at whim. He’d draped his long, rangy frame on one of the stools, his booted foot claiming possession of another for his wife – no doubt his version of “save, save, super-save.” His Texas-sky eyes were guarded as he met Dave’s gaze, as he tactfully didn’t call Dave’s obvious bullshit. “I’m sorry for your loss, Malkoff. I didn’t know Nash all that well, but he was…” Sam cleared his throat. “He’ll be missed.” He looked at Sophia, who’d come back into the bar to see what had slowed Dave down. “I’m glad you’re safe, though. You must be feeling, uh…” Another throat clearage. “You know, relief can be a pretty consuming emotion, so—”

“Which is why I’m seeing Sophia to her room,” Dave cut him off. “Good night.”

As he turned and headed for the door, his hand against Sophia’s back, he could feel Starrett’s gaze following them.

She was silent as they went toward the elevator, as they joined two elderly women, one with a walker, who were waiting for the lift to arrive.

Dave took his mug and had a healthy slug of his beer. The door opened with a ding, and after the little old lady faction had boarded, he let Sophia go first. He didn’t need to ask what floor she was on. They’d checked in at the same time – he knew they were both on four.

The door closed and as the elevator groaned its way upward Dave felt Sophia reach out and touch him, her fingers hooking on his belt at the back of his pants. He didn’t dare look at her, didn’t dare touch her, didn’t dare say a word. He just kept his eyes on the numbers appearing above the door. Two. Come on. Three. God, this thing was slow.

Four. Finally. The number lit but the elevator seemed to hover in limbo for eons before a bell rang and the doors opened.

And then they were alone in the hall, and the elevator door was closing, and Sophia finally spoke. “What you told Sam,” she said, leading him down the corridor as she fished in her pocket for her key card. “You weren’t… Were you…” She laughed and started again as she took the card from its paper folder and slid it into the lock. “He’s right, you know. About relief being…” The green light flashed and the lock clicked, and Sophia grabbed the handle and opened the door, holding it there as she turned to look up at him, her pretty face somber. “That’s not what this is.”

Dave nodded as he looked, hard, into her eyes. “I know,” he whispered. He also knew what — precisely — this was. The first runner-up could still get the prize if the real winner bowed out.

If had become when over the past few weeks as Troubleshooters team leader Lawrence Decker had made it profoundly clear that he had no room in his life for Sophia, who’d fancied herself in love with him for years. No doubt about it — the man was a moron to have pushed her away.

But he had. And now Sophia claimed that she’d come to terms with the fact that sitting around and waiting for Decker to get a moron-ectomy wasn’t going to get her the things she wanted. A home with a man who loved her. A family.

“You coming in?” she asked, holding the door open and turning back to look at him as he leaned there against the wall.

With her shimmering blond hair, delicately featured face, gracefully shaped mouth, perfect nose, huge blue eyes, that fairy-princess point to her chin, Dave found her to be so beautiful, his throat ached. Or maybe it was aching because he knew — as her best friend and confidant for so many years — just how damaged she truly was. He knew how hard she’d worked to regain the semblance of a normal life, to overcome the violence and tragedy of her past.

He also knew that she hadn’t had sex in years.

Neither had he. Which she, of course as his best friend, also knew.

This was going to be… Dave searched for the correct adjective. Terrifying was up there with amazing and miraculous. Was there a word that included all three? Thrilling wasn’t quite right and…

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” she said, and he realized that his delay in response had retriggered her uncertainty.

“I’m an idiot,” he said, coming inside and closing the door behind him, leaning on it so that it latched, throwing the bolt and the night lock, too. “I was just relishing the moment and—”

“Are you scared?” she interrupted.

He blinked at her directness. “Yes, but not for the reasons you think.”

She smiled at that.

Dave had to smile, too, as he looked around the room for a place to put down his beer mug. “We don’t exactly have a lot of secrets, do we?”

“I still have a few,” she admitted as she put her jacket over the desk chair, as she kicked off her shoes. “And I’m betting you do, too.”

The room was standard as far as hotels went. Nice enough in size, with a neutral decor that neither pleased nor offended, and a king-sized bed that he forced himself not to look at. There was a cluster of furniture – a small table and several chairs – over by the windows, and he headed toward its relative neutrality.

“I’m not scared,” she told him as she set her wineglass down on the bedside table. “At least I wasn’t while you were kissing me. Which is something I desperately want you to do again. Which is going to be difficult with you over there and me over here.”

“I’m trying to give you space,” Dave told her through a heart that was securely lodged in his throat. She desperately wanted him to kiss her again.

“No, thank you,” she said.

“Because, see, we should probably talk and I’m not sure I can do that with my tongue in your mouth. Which is not to say I didn’t completely enjoy—”

“We can talk more later. If we need to. I mean, we’ve talked for years.” She held out her hand to him and his feet moved toward her of their own volition.

So he spoke quickly. “It’s occurred to me that it’s been a while since either of us have taken a shower.”

Sophia went still. It wasn’t so much that her expression changed, because it didn’t. She didn’t move, she didn’t say anything, but Dave stopped short, knowing that he’d somehow said the exact wrong thing.

And in a flash he remembered her telling him – haltingly — about her captivity, about how the other women would bathe her. They’d put perfume in her hair and on her body, dress her completely in white – the better for the blood to show, should a man prefer that sort of thing.

“I meant me,” he added hastily. “I’m pretty sure I reek—”

“I love the way you smell,” Sophia told him, tears in her eyes because she knew he knew. And likewise he knew she knew he was now – absolutely – terrified of making another insensitive blunder. “I’ve always loved the way you smell.”

“Really?” Dork that he was, his voice actually cracked, but she didn’t seem to notice or care as she nodded. He took her hands. “Soph…” Tell me what to do, what you need…

She answered his unspoken question. “Just kiss me the way you kissed me downstairs.”

He pulled her close, and she went up on her toes to meet him halfway as he covered her mouth with his own. He didn’t try for tender, didn’t go for sweet – not that it would have made a difference if he had, because trying to wrangle the heat that sprang up instantly between them would have been as futile as trying to put out a five alarm fire with a baby blanket.

He wasn’t sitting down this time – there was no bar stool to keep her from pressing herself fully against him, so she did and it was all he could do to keep standing. He was still aroused from those first kisses, a fact that he was no longer able to hide from her. Not that she seemed to mind.

In fact, on the contrary, she looped one leg around him, as if she wanted him closer, and God, now his hands were on her perfect rear end, pulling her more tightly against him as he kissed her and kissed her.

He could feel her pull his T-shirt free from his jeans, feel the coolness of her hands against his back as she pushed the shirt up in an obvious attempt to get it off.

It made sense that she would want to undress him – she was in control, this was her choice. And he had just decided that he’d stand there, doing the one thing he was certain she liked – kissing her – when she pulled her mouth free to whisper, “Help me.”

So he did, yanking his shirt up and over his head, while she rid herself of her own shirt, then kissed him again, as if she couldn’t bear to spend too many seconds without his mouth on hers.

He was living his most cherished fantasy. He’d been granted his heart’s one desire. No doubt about it, at some point during this past total suckfest of a day, he’d done something really right to be here now. His mind raced as he ran his hands across the softness of her back, her shoulders, her arms, aware as hell – despite the fact that his eyes were closed — that Sophia was pressed against him, nearly skin to skin, in her bra. Which, for the record, was white and sweetly lacy with a tiny pink flower sewn between her perfect breasts.

He could feel her hands at the waist of his jeans. She opened his belt buckle like a pro – okay, don’t think that — unfastened the button, found the zipper pull and…

Famine, disease, drought. Dave fought to focus, but it wasn’t until he conjured up a picture of James Nash, with a white sheet being pulled over his head, that he knew for sure that he wasn’t going to embarrass himself by coming in Sophia’s ridiculously soft hands.

Of course, now he had to fight not to cry, and he was certain, without a doubt, that bursting into tears would be far more embarrassing than ejaculating within three seconds of Sophia’s touch. Although both were to be avoided, if possible.

So he gently moved her hands to a less sensitive spot, as he lifted his head and admitted, “It’s been a while, and I’m afraid that…”

She stepped back, stepped out of her pants while he did the same. She hesitated, though – even if only briefly. Anyone who didn’t know her as well as he did might’ve missed it. But she did hesitate, glancing over her shoulder at the mirror behind her before unfastening her bra and slipping her panties down her smooth, perfect legs.

The mirror behind her…

The light was dim enough that he could barely see the scars from her captivity – the largest one being on the small of her back. But he knew – as she did – that they were there.

And Dave also knew, with a seemingly brilliant stroke of insight, what to do, what to say to this gorgeous, naked woman standing there, so vulnerably, before him. “In truth,” he said, his voice raspy, hoarse to his own ears, as he pulled her close and touched her, skimming his hands across all that gorgeous, gleaming skin, across her breasts, her stomach, her back and, yes, even her fading scars, “it has nothing to do with how long it’s been and everything to do with you. I’ve always found you completely irresistible. Always.”

She lifted her head to smile up at him, but her trepidation was still there, in her eyes.

So he kissed her – kissed her and tugged her back with him, so that they fell, together, onto that bed. Deep in the recesses of his brain, he knew he should be careful not to be on top of her. He should loosen his grip so that she never felt restricted or overpowered. He should let her remain in control.

But she clung to him, opening her legs to pull him closer, wrapping her arms and legs around him, her hand on his butt, pushing him even more tightly against her, her breath hot against his ear as she reached between them with her other hand. “Dave. I want…”

Her fingers closed around him, leaving no doubt in his mind exactly what she wanted and when she wanted it – him, and right now. She shifted her hips and he felt her yield to him. She was soft and slick and tight around him, and as he slid into paradise he knew there was something he had yet to do or say, but when he opened his mouth, “God, I love you,” came blurting out.

They were the exact same words that had gotten him here, and once again, it was the right thing to say. Sophia laughed, but there was a catch in her voice, and he lifted his head to look into her eyes as she held him there, tightly inside of her, as intimately joined as two people could possibly be.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “For saying that.”

“It’s true.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and she reached for him, pulling his head down and kissing him, moving against him, beneath him, as best she could with his weight on top of her.

But the sight of those tears haunted him and he had to ask. “Are you sure you’re—”

“I’m good,” she said. “I’m great. I’m unbelievably… Oh, Dave, I need… More… Of you… Please…”

More of him. Okay.

He moved with her then, carefully, slowly, and she seemed to like that – “oh, yeah…” – so he didn’t speed up. The friction was incredible, the sensation sheer bliss – as if he were being stroked by the softest of hands, except not really, because it was even better than that.

Kathy/Anise had liked sex hard and fast, and she’d always, always been running the show, even when she’d been beneath him. It had been 180 degrees different than these long, slow withdrawals, and equally endless deep, deep thrusts that made Sophia moan – dear God, much more of this and he was going to lose it – except what the hell was he doing thinking about Kathy now when he was making love to Sophia – Jesus, he was making love to Sophia. Dave wondered inanely if she were thinking of Decker or maybe her dead husband, Dimitri, or even some distant, long-ago lover that she’d let slip away, and there was no way he could compete against any of them, except now he was way too much inside of his head so he tried to clear his thoughts of everything but this intense, mind-blowing pleasure he was feeling – that she was feeling, too.

“So good…,” she breathed. “So good.”

Good didn’t begin to cover it, but good was better than bad, it was better than get me out of here, don’t touch me, get your fucking hands offa me….

Good couldn’t kill you, except Dave was dying, he was choking, he was drowning, and he didn’t want to die, but Jesus, he didn’t want to go back to that basement with the bright light and the questions and the pain.

They’d taken all of his fingernails off his right hand and had made it clear they were ready to start on his left because they hadn’t caught on that he was stronger than anything they could throw at him. The waterboarding, the electric shocks, the blows to his face and body…

He just ran to Sophia in his mind, losing himself in his vivid memories of the too-short time they’d shared. Seven weeks. It had been slightly more than seven weeks since that first night.

His favorite escape was to go back to that night, to that very first time they’d made love. While it wasn’t the best sex they’d had – because God, they’d had a lot of sex in seven weeks, even with both of them out of town for part of that time — it was, for him at least, among the sweetest.

Although this time the monsters had gone too far but then pulled him back before he’d had the chance – in his mind – to reach his very favorite part. To make Sophia come. Which pissed the shit out of him.

They yanked the rag from his throat, hauled him up, and bent him over so the water they’d forced into him left his stomach and lungs as he coughed and choked and vomited his way back to reality – which sucked ass.

He fucking hated it here, yet his body gasped for air, tears streaming down his face as he puked even more, as he spit out a tooth that he must’ve broken as he’d savagely bit at that rag they’d stuffed in his mouth.

Here in the land of light and pain, those beautiful weeks that he’d spent with Sophia seemed distant and blurred, like a rapidly fading dream — only he knew it had happened. He knew that, in her own way, Sophia loved him, that she’d been ready and willing – and yes, even eager — to spend the rest of her life with him.

Dave clung to that truth, like a distant echo of the most beautiful, pure music cutting through the cacophony of angry demands and the shrill buzz of pain.

It was his love for Sophia, his memories of their time together, that was keeping him sane, keeping him alive, although it wouldn’t help him for much longer – he knew that, too. He could feel his already damaged body weakening – the infection from his knife wound getting more severe with each passing hour. And each time it was harder to come back.

But back he was, and he waited, still gasping and coughing, for the questions that would come. And for the blows that would follow when, once again, he failed to give his captors the information they wanted.

His world had shrunk to four absolute truths.

He loved Sophia — heart, body and soul.

He would die before betraying his teammates, his friends.

He was going to die. He knew that when these monsters who were torturing him finally realized that they could not break him, they would, unflinchingly, put a bullet in his head or slash a knife across his throat.

And the fourth truth?

Dave knew that Sophia was – at that very moment – in the company of Lawrence Decker. Deck — who loved her almost as much as Dave did.

And the jealousy and resentment he’d always felt, the green monster that, for years, Dave had never quite been able to tame, had changed. Over the past nightmarish blur of hours it had been twisted and crushed and turned into something hard and gleaming and clean. A gem of emotion – pure and brilliant.

It shone through his pain, brighter even than any of his other truths.

Because Dave knew with faith as solid as stone that Decker would keep Sophia safe from harm.

And for that, Dave would be eternally grateful, even after his last breath had left his lungs.

Dark of Night
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