Excerpt | Unnatural Instincts
Books - Unnatural Instincts - Excerpt
By the end of the day, the bodies had just kept piling up—her co-worker, a pissed-off fiancé, and a ghost, although technically the ghost was an uncarnate spirit without an actual physical body, so maybe that one didn’t count.
Busy answering the day’s accumulation of emails, Juno Kravitz had grabbed her cell phone when it rang earlier that evening, oblivious to the fact that the world as she knew it was about to go boom
“Where are you?” Evan said, sounding aggrieved, which was unlike him. Her fiancé was the most even-tempered man on Manhattan Island.
“Where am I supposed to be?” she said, surprised.
“Don’t tell me you forgot?”
“Forgot wha . . . Oh, crap. It totally slipped my mind.” She squeezed her eyes shut. The one week anniversary of their engagement. How could she have forgotten?
“I’m here at your apartment,” he said in a dogged tone. “I ordered the four cheese ravioli from Venetto’s. And for dessert, I got the ricotta cheesecake you love.”
Opening her eyes again, she stared with guilt at the ham and cheese on rye—from the deli downstairs—already biodegrading on her desk. “I’m sorry. I know it’s no excuse,” she hurriedly dropped the incriminating evidence in the trash, “but things have been a little hectic this afternoon.”
The other half of the sandwich felt lodged behind her rib cage. With her free hand, she opened her desk drawer and retrieved the super size plastic bottle of antacids she kept stashed there.
“What happened this time?” Evan sounded resigned.
Glancing around, she lowered her voice. “Bill McCutcheon had a heart attack, I think.”
“Why are we whispering? Doesn’t Bill know?”
“That’s not funny, Evan,” she said, nettled into speaking at her normal volume. “We thought he was dead, but thank God, they managed to resuscitate him.” She’d watched as they applied the paddles, her breath jerking along with Bill’s body. She kept willing him to breathe, damn it!
Evan’s sober response brought her back to the present. “It’s okay.” Popping a couple of the cherry-flavored tablets into her mouth, she chewed. Only it wasn’t okay. Not for Bill’s wife and daughter. Their lives might never be okay for a long time.
Cameron poked his head over the top of her cubicle. “Are you coming, June bug?” he said. “We need to get going.”
“In a minute, and don’t call me June bug . . . Listen, I can’t talk now,” she told Evan, standing and reaching for her jacket from the hook on the cubicle wall. “We’re going into a meeting to discuss allocating Bill’s workload between us over the next couple of weeks.”
“What time do you think you’ll get home?”
Tucking her phone between her chin and her shoulder, she shrugged an arm into her jacket. “Sometime around eight. You don’t have to wait.”
“I’ll wait.” He paused. “Just so you know, though. For your punishment, I’m eating your dessert, too.”
Three hours later, Juno’s heartbeat had slowed, her breathing had steadied, and the thin film of sweat had dried on her skin. Next to Evan’s heat, she felt warm. His teasing fingers drifted over her sensitized skin, and she tried to let herself relax in the moment, but her brain didn’t work that way. Already she was thinking of the tasks she needed to do tonight. Take a shower, review her project notes—
“How was it for you?” Evan said, just as he always did.
“It was fine,” she said absently, still adding to the list in her head—answer her emails.
To be honest, she’d been distracted. She couldn’t get Bill McCutcheon’s heart attack out of her head. She’d sent flowers to the hospital along with a note, but it hardly seemed adequate. Juno knew firsthand what it was to lose people you loved in one unexpected, devastating blow. There weren’t enough cut flowers in the world to ease that pain.
From now on, his family would feel like they were balanced on the knife’s edge of potential disaster; and that was a very scary place to be.
“Fine? It was just fine?” Evan said.
Turning her head on the pillow to look at him in the shadowy light streaming in from the hallway, she smiled. “What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know.” He sounded disgruntled. “You heard rockets going off, sirens and flashing alarms in your head, maybe even thought you saw a lunar eclipse.”
Trying for a light touch, she said, “All of the above.”
“Now you’re just pandering,” he said. “If you weren’t beautiful and smart, you’d be a horrible girlfriend.”
She leaned over and kissed him. “But you love me anyway.” As a matter of fact, the big “O” didn’t always happen for her. Her fault, not Evan’s. She hated to disappoint him when it didn’t, because he took it so personally—like a track coach whose star sprinter didn’t make the finish line. Her best friend Bebe could almost orgasm on demand, which seemed so unfair. So what’s wrong with me? Some kind of physical malfunction, like a defective clitoris? Maybe I’m a lemon.
Since this was hardly an uplifting thought—it wasn’t as if she could get a tune-up or even a replacement part—she shifted the weight of his leg where he’d anchored her thighs to the mattress, trying to peer past his shoulder at the alarm clock’s neon orange readout. 10:07.
“You know, if I moved in with you,” Evan said, a persuasive note in his voice, “we could do this every night. Be together.”
“No, we couldn’t.”
“Because we can’t even do it tonight.” With determination, she rolled away from him and sat up on the edge of the bed, turning on the bedside lamp. “You have to leave.”
Evan blinked at the sudden glare of light. “Why do I have to leave?”
“I have a bridge call at eleven. It could take a while. No use in you sticking around.” She picked up her cell phone from the nightstand.
“What are you looking at?” he said.
“Hmmm? Oh, it’s a text from Walker.”
“He’s always texting you. What the fuck is with that guy? He does know you need sleep?”
“He claims he only needs four hours sleep,” she said with a rueful grimace, her usual reaction to any mention of her boss. “He thinks the rest of us are slackers.”
Tossing the cell back on the nightstand, she moved away from the bed to her dresser. In the mirror, she watched as Evan propped himself up on one elbow, brown hair tousled and blue eyes sleepy with satisfaction, the sheet tangled around his legs. He was definitely worth looking at. All that chiseled, muscular perfection. And he’s mine.
“You know that theory you have about Walker being raised in a lab by human surrogate parents?” he said, grumbling.
“Yeah, what about it?” She’d come up with this theory to explain why her boss was the least convincing impersonation of a human being she’d ever met. To her knowledge, no one else who worked under him had come up with a better hypothesis.
“There’s a flaw. I don’t think he’s human.” He patted the sheet on her side of the bed invitingly. “Where are you going? We still have time to fool around.”
She shook her head and laughed. “Don’t even try to tempt me. I have things I need to take care of.”
“You always do this, you know.” Evan punched his fist into her pillow, then grabbed it and stuffed it behind his head.
“Do what?” She rifled through the drawer until she found one of the oversize T-shirts she liked to wear when she was just schlepping around. She wished she felt as relaxed as Evan about being naked. Even after two years together, she was uncomfortable with her body on display. Naked, she didn’t feel sexy—she just felt exposed.
“You get antsy after sex,” he complained. “I thought women enjoyed afterplay.”
“I did enjoy it. I promise. Now I have things to do.” She plucked panties and a bra from another drawer, then headed toward the bathroom. In her opinion, which she kept to herself, afterplay was like the postgame wrap-up of just about any sport she could name—five minutes was long enough.
The air was sticky with humidity, and she decided to take her shower now, instead of later. All day long, the skies over New York had been overcast with angry, dun-colored clouds. A severe thunderstorm was forecast for later that night.
“What am I supposed to do?” Evan said, still not moving from the bed.
“Go home,” she called over her shoulder as she entered the bathroom. “You should hurry, sweetheart. I don’t want you to get caught in the storm.”
Fifteen minutes later, he was buttoning his shirt and still arguing as she herded him toward her apartment front door.
“Tell me again why I can’t stay the night,” he said, looking mulish.
“I told you,” she said with exaggerated patience. “I have work to do, and I don’t need you distracting me.” Evan had many fine qualities—too numerous to count, really—but he didn’t play well on his own. From past experience, she knew that with the best of intentions, he’d be popping into her office just to chat and with offers to get her something, interrupting her while she was trying to follow the different conversational threads at the other end of the conference call and make notes, and generally making a nuisance of himself.
“I distract you?” he said.
He liked that, she could tell. “If you’re looking for compliments, I gave you a very loud and rave review less than half an hour ago.” Okay. She’d faked an orgasm, but at least one of them was going away happy.
I’m in a somber mood. I need to snap out of it.
“You did, didn’t you?” Grinning, he retrieved his jacket from the metal rack by the door.
“Don’t gloat.” Inexorably, she slid back the bolt lock, opened the door, and stood to one side. A draft of cold air rushed past her, making her shiver and hug her midsection. “You’d better put on your coat jacket. The temperature must have dropped outside.”
“We still need to talk about moving in together,” he said, shrugging into his jacket, “and more importantly, about setting a wedding date.”
“We will. I promise. Just not tonight.”
Evan didn’t look totally satisfied with her response, but he didn’t pursue it.
“Oh, before I forget,” she told him, “Addison wants to know if we want to go with her and Greg to see this new play off-Broadway. It’s getting pretty good reviews.”
“What kind of play?” Evan said with suspicion like she was trying to trick him into seeing experimental theatre.
She’d never make that mistake again. “I think it’s a comedy,” she said.
“Do I have to?”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to allow a little culture into your life, you know.” Juno tried to keep the criticism out of her voice.
“We’re simple folk in the Midwest,” he said good-humoredly. “Our only real culture is sports.”
Tell me about it. With an effort, Juno refrained from rolling her eyes. “So is that a yes or a no?”
“If you really want me to, I’ll go,” Evan said in that foot-dragging voice of male martyrdom every woman knew.
“No, that’s okay.” She wouldn’t enjoy it if she were worried about his enjoyment during the play, which was exactly what he was counting on, the stinker. “Maybe another time.”
“Sorry, babe.” He at least had the grace to appear mildly remorseful as he slid on his tweed sports coat. “Don’t I even get a goodnight kiss?”
“One last kiss and then you go.” The peck she gave him was almost perfunctory, her mind already focused on the next task in front of her.
“I feel so cheap. So used,” he said.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“That’s what they always say.”
She lifted one eyebrow in amusement. “Who always says? Your other girlfriend?”
He scowled. “Yeah. My other girlfriend wouldn’t toss me out of her warm bed.”
Unconcerned, Juno patted his cheek. “She sounds like a gem. You should definitely keep her.”
Closing the door behind him, she reached for the bolt lock, but a spasm of remorse stopped her. Okay, she needed Evan to go away, but not because she didn’t want him around.
The man was so romantic he’d proposed to her on the top deck of the Sea Siren, with the ocean lapping gently against the hull beneath the full moon overhead, and the lights along the shore twinkling like fairy lights amidst the darkness.
Of course, the charter boat was only a day rental out of Montauk, instead of the five-day Caribbean cruise Evan had originally planned, because she couldn’t take off work that long.
I truly am a horrible girlfriend. She opened the door again and shouted, “I love you,” down the hall just as the closing elevator doors hid him from view. Crap.
“I didn’t know you cared, Kravitz,” a masculine voice said from the opposite end of the hall. “Your place or mine?”
She jerked her head around, blond ponytail swinging, but she already knew who it was. Even after only three months, she’d recognize that British accent anywhere, not to mention the velvet rasp of the baritone underneath. Ryder Jamieson. The newest tenant from across the hall returning home to his bachelor lair.
“In your dreams, Jamieson,” she said.
His tall, lean body propped against the door frame, he fumbled in his jeans pocket for his key. He even slouched with a kind of lethal grace, she noted with grudging admiration.
Turning his head, he gave her a considering look from dark, sardonic eyes. “I have some very erotic dreams, Kravitz,” he said. “Maybe we could discuss them sometime over drinks?”
“Too late, Jamieson. I’m engaged.” She flashed her ring finger in front of him.
Ryder looked amused. “Congratulations,” he said. “Am I to assume that means no?”
“Of course it means no.” The glance she shot him was indignant.
“Well, if you change your mind, Kravitz, I’m across the hall.” He inserted his key in the lock and opened the door. Instead of going in, he turned his head and studied her, his encompassing gaze sending a shiver of unwanted feminine awareness down to her toes. “That’s a fetching look for you, by the way,” he said, lips twitching in a half-smile. “You should wear it more often.”
With as much dignity as anyone could convey dressed in an oversize T-shirt and white athletic socks, she said, “Go blow yourself,” well aware it was a look someone could only pull off if they were perky and cute. She’d never been perky and cute, not even in high school, when she would have gladly traded away twenty I.Q. points to fit that description.
Trying not to appear like she was fleeing the scene, she retreated into her apartment and closed the door on his sharp crack of laughter.
The most annoying thing about Ryder Jamieson, she decided with her back pressed against the door, was she really had no good reason to be annoyed with him. As a neighbor, he was almost invisible, his nocturnal habits keeping him out frequently at night during the hours she was in. All she really knew about him was that he seemed to lack steady employment. Maybe he’s an actor. Especially with that voice. One more black mark to hold against him.
He’s not even classically handsome like Evan. This sudden flash of loyalty was somewhat tarnished by the unbidden thought that while Evan looked refined and polished, Ryder looked like a very bad boy and an even better good time. With his unkempt dark hair and stubble that needed a good barber, expresso-colored eyes, and square, stubborn chin most people probably found it hard to argue with, he exuded a raw sexuality even she wasn’t immune to, or any other woman for that matter. Judging from the parade going in and out, his apartment was like a temp agency for women who came in an assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes, had differing skill sets, but were all destined not to be permanent.
She went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee and grab a blueberry Pop-Tart, reminded that she’d actually met one of his girlfriends when Jamieson had sent over a friendly brunette—dressed in a yellow marigold sari and Birkenstocks—to borrow some fresh garlic.
“Sorry. I’m more of a defroster than a cook,” Juno had confessed.
The brunette, whose name was Selene, gave her a cheerful smile. “Ryder said it was worth a try, although his hopes weren’t high.”
Juno narrowed her eyes. “He said that, did he?”
“Don’t mind him. He’s temperamental when he’s cooking.”
“He cooks?” Somehow, this didn’t fit Juno’s image of Ryder Jamieson. She’d taken him for more of a player than a chef.
“He’s a fabulous cook.” Selene winked at her. “Actually, he’s good at lots of things.”
Since Juno didn’t want to encourage Selene to tell her more, she changed the subject. “That’s a lovely sari. Is it silk?”
Smoothing her hand over the soft yellow sheen of the fabric, Selene confided, “I only wear natural fibers. Synthetic fabrics interfere with my psychic energy.”
Okay. With a monumental effort, Juno kept her expression polite. Definitely a flake, but a friendly one.
Selene threw a vague glance over her shoulder. “I guess I’d better get back.” Before she left, she handed Juno a business card with gold embossed stars and a silver half-moon against a midnight blue background. “I do psychic readings, in case you’re interested.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep you in mind,” Juno had said, then promptly forgot.
Forget Ryder Jamieson, she told herself now as she filled the filter of her French press with fresh coffee grounds. Fortunately, he’s not your problem. She pitied the woman who tried to rope him in. She’d probably need barb wire fence and a shotgun.
A few minutes later, carrying her coffee mug with her, she crossed back through the living room to the second bedroom that moonlighted as her office.
She sat at her dark oak desk, a piece of Americana she’d found on an antique shopping junket in upstate New York, and booted up her laptop. The desk took up most of the space so that she only had room for an olive-colored armchair and matching ottoman in the corner where she frequently read in her spare time. To house her collection of books, she’d hired a carpenter to build wall-to-wall bookshelves along one wall, which she’d painted a soothing sand color.
The storm broke half an hour later with operatic drama, thunder booming in a cascading crescendo while she was wrapping up the bridge call with her project team. Gina Cooley, the application development manager, suddenly demanded in the tone of a cheer squad leader, “Why isn’t April Fenton on the call list?”
“Does it matter?” Juno said, surprised by Gina’s vehemence. Another loud crash of thunder rumbled overhead, making her jump.
“I’m pinging you right now.”
Evidently, it did to Gina. “Fine.”
Forty-five seconds later, she got Gina’s IM. “Why should we be the only ones losing sleep? What’s the deal with April?”
Juno pinged back. “I don’t know. Walker wanted her name removed.”
“Probably because April’s a total screw-up. She never takes responsibility for anything,” Gina responded.
“C’mon. She can’t be that bad.”
If April hadn’t been reasonably good at her job, she could have fellated Walker every day at lunch, and he still would have booted her out of the firm. Walker didn’t tolerate incompetence. Whatever Gina’s grievance was with April, Juno didn’t want to know.
After she had got through with Gina, Juno removed her horn-rimmed glasses and rubbed her forehead to ease the ache that was gathering behind her eyes. Stress related, she didn’t doubt. Sometimes her job description was less project manager and more nanny, trying to get all the kids on the playground to coop—
What was that? Something had moved in her peripheral vision, cutting off her thread of thought.
She’d caught a glimpse of it in the corner of the room. A shadow? Her eyes were tired, and undoubtedly that explained what she’d seen. She reached for her coffee mug and realized her fingers were almost numb with cold. What the hell? Sure, in late August, the nights could turn cool, but the air in the room was almost frigid.
A curious sensation swept over her then. An atavistic sense that someone or something was there in the room with her. She shivered, a crawling sensation on her skin. She slid her glasses back on, more as a delay tactic than because she needed them. Technically, she only needed them for reading; long distance, she could see fine.
When she looked again, she stared slack-jawed in disbelief.
I need a long break. I’ve obviously been working too hard.
At first glance, it appeared as though some amorphous mist or fog was gathering in the corner where the armchair fronted the built-in bookcase. Right off-hand, she couldn’t think of any sort of phenomenon to explain it. Nothing natural that was.
Then as she watched, this thing, this mass, whatever the hell it was, seemed to be trying to form. A cold sensation gathered in her gut, a growing dread, but she couldn’t look away.
Maybe I’m dreaming this. She closed her eyes, hoping when she opened them again, whatever was there would have disappeared.
Seriously, Juno? Closing her eyes to make the monsters go away didn’t even work when she was four.
She forced her eyes open again, almost resigned to finding that not only had the forming apparition not left, but it had also now formed itself into a person. A person she recognized.
Her mother sat in the armchair facing her, which presented a problem.
Her mother was dead.
Juno stumbled to her feet, inadvertently knocking over her coffee mug. “I have to quit drinking caffeine this late at night,” she muttered as she grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on her desk and dabbed at the dark puddle. All the while, her mother sat there in silence, exactly the way Juno remembered her, dressed as though she was on her way to someplace more interesting—her blue dress a smidgeon too tight, a shade too bright, and about a decade too young.
Only this time Mom was slightly more transparent.
When Two Worlds Collide