Excerpt from Imperfect Rebel

     
     Cleo sighed as the driver shut off the car engine instead of turning around at her warning sign. Determined suckers. She couldn't wait to see how her intrepid guest reacted to her burglar alert system.
     A pair of long-legged, crisply ironed khakis appeared beneath the porch overhang. A man. She should have known. Men had to prove themselves by showing no fear. It didn't seem to matter if they showed no intelligence while they were at it.
     The lean torso decked in a tight black polo appeared next. My, my. She stopped chewing her fingernail to relish the loose-limbed swing of wide shoulders and a corded throat topped by a long, angular face with more character than prettiness. Tousled sable hair fell across a tanned brow, and she was almost sorry she'd left the security system on.
     The aviator sunglasses were a downright sexy trim for this parcel.
     "You are under alert!" The loudspeaker blared as soon as the intruder hit the porch step. She'd used an army drill sergeant for that recording. It would scare the pants off any normal person. This one halted and removed his sunglasses to trace the bellowing voice with curiosity.
     "Turn back now. This is your only warning!"
     Cleo bit back a sigh of exasperation as the jerk bent over to examine the step for wires. Did he think her an idiot to put wires where someone could cut them?
     "Your location has been verified, and you are now under surveillance. Put up your hands, or we'll shoot."
     The man straightened and seemed to be whistling as he craned his neck and surveyed the underside of the covered porch from the step.
     Shaking her head, Cleo reached for the "off" switch, but she waited for his reaction to the final performance. Sure enough, her visitor disregarded the warning and fearlessly breached the porch gate. Sirens screamed, strobe lights flared, and a fedora-hatted skeleton dropped down between him and the front door.
     * * *
     Jared McCloud came eyeball to eye socket with a six-foot bag of bones baring a smirk through a cigar clamped between its teeth. He'd been given enough warning to expect it, but he couldn't help grinning in appreciation of the coup de grace. At night, with the shrieking siren and strobes, it would have any potential thief shitting his pants.
     "Pleased to meecha, Burt," he murmured, inspecting the wires which must have held the freak to the porch roof. "Guess this means the old witch isn't at home."
     "Guess it means the old witch is on her way out."
     Jared blinked at the apparition in the doorway. He hadn't heard the door open. Shouldn't the hinges of a place like this creak eerily?
     He smiled in satisfaction at the full impact of the skeleton's creator as she emerged from shadows. Far from being an old witch, she was his newest dream of perfection. Not too tall or too short but sturdy, she packed a lot of punch into a compact, sexy bundle.
     Generally, women didn't appreciate being ogled, so he respectfully raised his gaze to absorb the rest of the glorious sight. Rumpled short hair revealed roots of auburn beneath a mousy brown dye job. Tinted half glasses attempted to hide eyes of a spectacular green—not contacts, either.
     He thought he was in love.
     Of course, he'd been in love last week and the week before, and mostly it was a major distraction. "Name's Jared McCloud." He smiled with as much charm as he could summon. "I'm looking for Cleo Alyssum."
     "She's not here."
     She said that so promptly, Jared figured this had to be her. Well, well. Curiouser and curiouser.
     He produced a business card from his pocket with his hotel phone number scratched on the back. "I've been told Miss Alyssum is owner of the beach property back of here, and I'm interested in leasing it. I'm prepared to make a generous offer."
     She took the card and dropped it into her shirt pocket. "She doesn't like neighbors." She stepped onto the porch, shut and locked the peeling white door, and did something that reeled the skeleton upward like a collapsing party favor.
     "Your car's blocking my drive," she said curtly as he moved aside to let her pass.
     Not a smile, not a dimple, not a look of interest crossed her stoic features. Jared shrugged and ambled back toward his Jag. Women usually liked him, and he couldn't see that he'd done anything to tick this one off.
     "Do you have some idea when Miss Alyssum might return?" He played along with her gag and cast her a sideways look. She had a short, finely honed aquiline nose with a sprinkle of freckles across it, and a mouth drawn too tight to reveal any trace of humor.
     "She won't be interested. You're trespassing. I'd advise you to turn around before the police arrive." She headed for a beat-up black Chevy pickup, opened the door, then waited for him to move his car.
     She didn't even show an interest in his antique Jag. Damn. That car drew more comments than honeysuckle drew bees. Was she blind?
     He'd never accepted no as an answer. He wasn't an unreasonable man. She had a rundown beach shack going to waste. He wanted to put it to good use. He couldn't see the problem.
     "I can afford whatever price Miss Alyssum thinks the property is worth. I'll buy it if she'd rather not lease it. Just pass the message along, will you?" He leaned against his car door and watched her climb into her truck without replying. Well, damn.
     Maybe she was a witch, but she had all his incorrigible pheromones humming. He sighed as she cranked the truck to life without looking back. He got the message. He'd better move the Jag or she'd drive over it.
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