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  New York Times Bestselling Author Tara Janzen  

Excerpt: Crazy Kisses

Panama City, Panama.  Four days later.

There was a bikini bottom in his bathroom. 

Curious as hell, Kid picked the tiny scrap of green and purple cotton up off the towel bar and turned it over in his hand.

It wasn’t unusual for him to come home and find somebody crashing at his place.  He’d known the instant he’d walked in that someone was there.  The house in Panama City had belonged to his brother, and J.T. had always had an open door policy. 

But the bikini bottom was unusual. 

Combat boots, surfboards, cases of beer - that’s what he usually found.  Not outrageously green bikini bottoms with purple palm fronds printed on them.

It was enough to make a guy think.

About sex.

And about death.

He swore softly and put the swimsuit back on the towel bar.  J.T. had been the kind of guy who took care of people, a lot of people.  Some of them had been women, mostly friends, but a couple of ex-lovers had shown up over the last few months.  Kid didn’t think he could face one of them tonight, not and have to be the one to tell them J.T. was dead.  He still felt about half dead himself.

Easing himself around, he limped back out to the living room.  The house was pure tropical bungalow, with two bedrooms, a bath, kitchen and dining area together, and a living room that opened onto a palm shaded courtyard.  It had lizards darting around outside, a housekeeper named Rosa who held the place together no matter how many unexpected visitors showed up, and neighbors who liked to party - tonight being a case in point.  A salsa beat was coming from both sides of the house.

After his and C. Smith’s adventure on the Putumayo, two days in a Bogota hospital, and two days of debriefing with the DEA and the Defense Department guys, he wasn’t in the mood to party.  All he wanted to do was sleep in a bed he called his own.  He hoped the bikini girl had picked the spare bedroom and not the one he usually took.

The thought made him pause.

Geez.  No wonder he never got laid anymore. 

He shook his head and continued on across to the breezeway and the south bedroom, the one he preferred, and sure enough, it was definitely occupado.  There were clothes everywhere, and stuff, girl stuff, piled up on his dresser and draped over the chair, filmy stuff, bright colorful stuff, little stuff, bits and pieces.  The girl’s suitcases were on the floor in a corner, and besides being the most amazing shade of crocodile patterned hot pink leather he‘d ever seen, they were stuffed with electrical cords, makeup bags, and shoes, like a “girl grenade” had exploded and sent her clothes flying in every direction and left the heavy stuff to settle.

That thought gave him pause, too, sort of reminded him of something else, but he wasn’t going to spend the effort to figure out what.  He was too damn tired to sort through anything tonight.  All he wanted to do was sleep, and one bed or another didn’t really make much difference.

It would be nice to know who his company was, though.  He knelt by the suitcases and checked for address tags, but there weren’t any, just little ineffective, delicate leather straps where the tags might have been. 

     Girl luggage, he thought with a grin. 

He turned to leave, when a small, torn white T-shirt hanging off the doorknob caught his eye, a plain white T-shirt with a paint smear on it - electric blue paint. 

Everything inside him froze, except his heart, which plummeted into the pit of his stomach. 

Impossible.  It was absolutely impossible - but he knew that T-shirt, knew that paint smear.

His gaze slid to the clothes draped over the chair, and he saw something else he knew, a purple silk robe with a letter “N“ painted in pink on the pocket.  Geezus.  He looked around the room, at all the stuff.  But it wasn’t just stuff, and it wasn’t just any girl grenade that had gone off in here.  It was a Nikki McKinney grenade.

He picked up the robe, brought the silky material to his face - and her scent flooded his senses.  Hot sex, warm love, all the memories were there, so close to the surface.

Too close.   

Nikki was here, and suddenly, he was in over his head.  Way over.  

Why in the world would Nikki be in Panama City? 

And had she brought the freakin’ fiber artist with her?

Geezus.  He couldn’t take that.  No way in hell.

He looked up from the robe and checked the room.  No, this was a one person disaster, from the Panama hat and pink and green striped sunglasses on his dresser to the pile of underwear on the bed.  This was all Nikki, every square inch of it.

Underwear.  Bed.  Nikki.

And suddenly, he was wide awake, every cell in his body. 

He dropped the robe back on the chair and headed out the door.  In the courtyard, he turned toward the loudest music.  Nikki would be at ground zero, which meant the Sandoval’s walled garden next door.

Rico and Luis Sandoval were a couple of trust fund twins whose daddy ran the biggest chain of car dealerships in Panama.  They were great guys for a good time, a cold beer, and a Friday night poker game, strip poker if they could talk a girl into playing.

Kid always opted out of any Sandoval brother scheme that included drunk, naked women, but Rico and Luis wouldn’t have had to use liquor or talk very fast to get Nikki in the  game.  There wasn’t anything she liked better than naked men.  Twins would be an irresistible bonus in her book.

Cripes.  Nikki and a couple of Panamanian beach boy hustlers with a marked deck.  The thought had Kid limping at double time.  It would serve Rico and Luis right if he just let her have them.  They’d never get the drop on her, no matter how much they cheated, and once she pulled her “Gee, can I paint you naked” line on them, they wouldn’t have a chance.  She’d have them stripped out of their machismo faster than they could drop their skivvies.  The trust fund boys would still be looking for their balls come Christmas.

But he didn’t want any other guys dropping their shorts for Nikki tonight, or any other night - Panamanian beach boys or fiber artist fiancés.

A fiancé - how in the hell had he let things get so out of hand?  How had he gone seven months without calling her?  Without writing her?

He stopped by the gate in the wall - stopped and made himself take a reality check.  The truth was, he knew why he hadn’t contacted her.  He knew exactly why he hadn’t gone home at Christmas.  And nothing had changed.

He wasn’t the man she’d fallen in love with, not anymore, not even close, and there was no coming back from the places he’d been. 

But she was here, and he had to see her.  He wasn‘t going to fool himself into thinking she‘d come to see him.  He was the last person she would have expected to show up in Panama City, despite him owning the house.  If she’d wanted to come to Panama, for whatever reason, Skeeter would have loaned her the key and given her the official situation report:  He was in Colombia, working out of Bogotá.

And if he hadn’t reached the end of his rope, that’s where he’d still be.  

No, she couldn’t have come here looking for him.  For the last seven months, no one except the men he was with had known where he was or what he was doing.  In the beginning, that had been Hawkins, and later another SDF operator, Creed Rivera.  After Creed had finished his mission, he’d gone home, but Kid had stayed. 

He’d stayed too long. 

Colombia wasn’t safe for him anymore.  People were looking for him.  They just didn’t know his real name or what he looked like, not yet, but that wasn’t going to hold them off forever, not these guys, not if he kept doing what he’d been doing.  The airfield on the Putumayo wasn’t the first time el asesino fantasma had hit Juan Conseco’s operation, and the drug lord knew it.  News of the “Putumayo bounty” Conseco had put out on the ghost killer had hit Bogota while he’d still been in the hospital.  The cocaine baron wanted him dead or alive, and for half a million dollars, Kid figured Conseco had a pretty good shot at getting him.

It was a helluva lot of money, but Kid had done a helluva lot of damage, including a pair of sniper hits  contracted for by the Colombian government via the U.S. Department of Defense on two of Conseco‘s top lieutenants, a mission so black it had been black-on-black.  Which all made Nikki’s presence even more unnerving, if that was possible - which, honest to God, it wasn‘t.  He was already unnerved all the way down to his gut and his toes by her being here.  The situation with Conseco only made it worse.

And wasn’t that just perfect?  He hadn’t been home five minutes, and the first thing he had to do was literally kick Nikki McKinney out of his bed.

Well, hell.  At least now he had something to say that didn’t begin and end with “I’m sorry.”  He’d said that to her so many times, especially when she was crying, and when they’d been together, she’d cried a lot.  He had to admit that “Get your butt home” didn’t sound much better, though.

He reached for the gate, then had to stand back when a couple stumbled through, their arms wrapped around each other, holding each other up on their way to the Ramone’s place on the other side of Kid’s yard.

From the looks of the two of them, a little drunk, a little disheveled, and both in drag with half their clothes falling off, the Sandoval party was in full swing - a fact proved when he stepped through the gate. 

Every year, four days before Ash Wednesday, Panama City hosted Carnaval, a sexually charged, anything-goes party leading up to LentEvery Friday night, no matter what was happening on the next Wednesday, the Sandoval brothers did the same. 

There were colored lights hanging in the trees, two transvestites crooning on a makeshift stage, well over a hundred other people crammed into the garden, some in costume, plenty of beer, and a bar serving baja panties - literally “panty lowerers,” which in Panama translated to any drink made with hard liquor. 

And there was Nicole Alana McKinney.  He spotted her instantly.  She was half in costume, with a pink feathered tiara in her black and purple spiked hair, and a blue sequined mini-skirt with a matching stole to go with the top half of her green and purple palm frond bikini.  She had a baja panties in one hand and five cards in the other.  Her back was to him, and she was sitting at a table with four guys, two of them Rico and Luis, one of whom was already down to a pair of tighty-whities and an orange feather boa.

It was like the living incarnation of his worst nightmare - or at least his nightmare before she’d gotten engaged.  He’d never imagined that happening.

But this scene.  Oh, yeah, he’d imagined it plenty of times - Nikki and a bunch of half-dressed guys well on their way to being undressed guys. 

It was her work, taking naked guys and putting them through the wringer of her cameras and her paint brushes until she got what she wanted, which was always more than the guys ever thought they’d have to give. 

She was practically famous now, her paintings showing on both coasts and selling in five figures.  Three months ago, she’d done an Esquire magazine cover of Brad Pitt as one of her fallen angels.  Kid had seen it in Bogota, and it had been incredible. 

Fucking Brad Pitt.  Who would have believed?  Nikki’s mentor, Katya Hawkins, was taking her straight to the top of the art world, exactly where she deserved to be.  He’d watched Nikki work once - work a guy over - and it had made him sweat and all but turned him inside out.  He hadn’t known a girl could be so freakin’ fierce.

Yeah.  He’d kept up with her career, with her life.  He’d been discreet, but he’d kept up, asked a few questions.  Her sister was married to another of the Steele Street operators - or ex-operator to be more exact.  Quinn hadn’t gone out on a mission since he and Regan had hooked up. 

It was a helluva price to pay for a woman, but under any other circumstances than the ones he’d found himself in last summer, he might have done it for Nikki.

She hadn’t come straight out and asked him to quit his job, but he’d seen it in her eyes every time she’d looked at him.  He’d known it every time she’d cried because he was going away.  So freakin’ fierce, and yet so fragile. 

Hell, she’d probably made the right choice with the basket weaver guy, but yeah, sure, he could have done it, left his buddies and turned himself into her boy toy, gone back to school, and become...something.

Something other than what he was - a highly skilled weapon of the United States government.  The months he’d spent with Hawkins and Creed, tracking down and taking out his brother’s killers, had changed him.  Superman and the jungle boy had changed him.  They’d taken everything the Marine Corps had taught him and honed it all to a razor sharpness. 

He wasn’t a bona fide superhero, not like Hawkins, and he wasn’t three quarters wild like Creed, but he didn’t have to do much more than stand there and look at her to know he was still in love with Nikki McKinney.

God, what lousy news.  And it didn’t change a damn thing.  It only made things harder.

He was going to have to keep his distance.  Be professional.  Stay cool.  Play it smart.  Get her back on a plane ASAP - and for God‘s sakes not do anything stupid and spontaneous.

Like kiss her.

Or run his tongue up the side of her neck.   

Or put his hand on her ass. 

He took a breath, ran through the “don’t” list one more time, and was good to go - up until she suddenly turned in her chair, startled like a bird taking flight, feathers flying, sequins shimmering, and looked straight at him.  He saw the shock on her face, saw her mouth form his name, and his quickly laid plan started sliding out from under him like beach sand in a rip tide.

In combat, “tunneling,” focusing on one thing and losing track of everything else that was going on around you was a good way to get killed. 

Apparently, the same rule applied in love, because he was slain.  The transvestites went into a butchered rendition of “La Vida Loca,” and he could barely hear it.  The other hundred people were laughing, talking, singing along, their glasses clinking, their sequins shaking, and all they were was a blur.  Loose feathers floated in the air, beer spilled, women squealed - and all he could see was Nikki.  All he could hear was his heart beating, slow and steady and strong.  He knew what he felt, and there were no words for it.  Not this. 

Her tiara caught the lights and glittered in her wild, dark hair.  Pure bed head, pink feathers, and a couple of purple streaks, strands going every which way.  It wasn’t an accident.  She fixed it like that, moussed it and blow-dried it all into an artful mess.  He’d watched her do it, teased her about it, kissed her between the moussing and the blow-drying - and loved every second of it.

She had five earrings in one ear and three in the other, always, and none of them ever matched.  She sang in the mornings, and he’d been her first man.

All of that made her his. 

He started forward, and she rose from her chair, her cards falling to the table, her hand coming up to her chest - a delicate hand with paint under the nails.  There was no Nikki without paint.  She painted men.  She painted on her photographs.  She painted angels and demons.  She painted her clothes, and once, for him, she‘d painted herself - in chocolate and caramel.

Oh, yeah.  He was in way over his head. 

Seven months without her, without her kiss, without her wrapped around him - by all rights, he should be dead. 

He passed the last barrier of drunken dancers and found himself suddenly standing in front of her - with absolutely nothing to say.  Geezus.  All he could do was look at her.  She was so beautiful.  She’d knocked him senseless the first time he’d seen her, and he’d never really recovered - the wild color of her hair, the dark wings of her eyebrows, the shape of her face, the clear, sun-shot gray of her eyes.  Her mouth.  God, what she’d done to him with her mouth.

“I...I didn’t expect...“ she started, her voice trailing off breathlessly.  Her cheeks were flushed.  “Not tonight.”

“Neither did I.”  It was the God’s truth.  She was the last thing he’d expected in this place.

“Kid!” Rico shouted a greeting above the party noise, above the singing and the music and all the chatter. 

Chico!”  Luis put a beer in his hand. 

Chuleta!“ someone else said and tossed down their cards, laughing.  “La hermosa paloma tiene un flor y escalerilla,”  The beautiful bird has a straight flush.

Nueve alto,” Rico called out.  Nine high.  “Roberto!  Take something off.” 

The conversation flowed around them in Spanish and English, the latter, he knew, in deference to Nikki.  The Sandoval brothers were very inclusive, especially of beautiful women.  They wanted to keep her in the game.

But she’d already left with him.  They just didn’t know it yet.

He took a short swallow off the beer, set the bottle aside, and reached for her hand.

There was absolutely nothing to say - not after she put her hand in his. 

He needed to kiss her.  He was going to kiss her, but not here at the party.  He was taking her home.

Keeping her close to his side, he threaded a way through the wildly dancing crowd, heading back toward the gate in the wall.  Catcalls sounded behind them, with Rico and Luis accusing him of all sorts of felonious kidnapping of beautiful gringas.  He wasn’t offended.  They were laughing and cheering him on, and none of it made a damn bit of difference.  There was nothing but Nikki, her hand in his, so small and strong, her skin not so soft, not on her hands.  Too much paint, too much paint cleaning, too many hours in the darkroom, processing film to her exacting standards.  Her hands were always rough, always nicked up. 

But the rest of her was soft, ungodly soft.

He opened the gate and once on the other side, shoved the bolt home, locking out the rest of the world.  He wasn’t worried about the Ramones.  The traffic was usually one way from Sandoval’s.  By the time people ended up at the Ramone’s, they were done for the night.

No, all his attention was focused right here, right now, right where he stood.

His heart was pounding.

It was dark on his side of the wall, dark and sweet with the smell of flowers, with just the light from the party filtering in through the trees and across the tops of the climbing vines.

“Kid,” she said, her voice still so softly breathless.  “You‘re here.  I hoped, but...my God, it‘s like I dreamed you.”

Her face was turned up toward his, her hand touching his arm.

“Nikki...I - “ he started, then gave up and simply lowered his mouth to hers.  There was nothing to say, not right now, not when all he wanted, all he needed was to touch her, to slide his tongue in her mouth and taste her, to fill himself up with her.

Their lips met, hers parted, and a hundred emotions flooded through him.  He’d expected the pleasure, electrifying pleasure - but he also got relief, bone deep.  This was home, being with Nikki, their bodies touching.  She came up on tiptoe, her mouth on his, her arms going around his neck, and he slid his hand down her back.

Then farther.

Two rules down in under thirty seconds.  He was kissing her and had his hand on her ass - and it was incredible.

This was going to get crazy, fast.  Real fast.  He could tell.  The kiss had gone from “home sweet home” to hot and deep instantly.  He tried not to stick his tongue halfway down her throat, tried not to devour her, but she was already there, and he was drowning in the love he felt - in the edge of desperation pulling him under, the heat of her skin, in the all-consuming soft wetness of her mouth. 

This was going to be more than crazy.  It was going to be crazy hot sex, sweet and dirty up against the garden wall in less than five minutes.  Geezus.  He’d been so in love with her, was so in love with her.  How had he ever thought he could live without this?