Steel Valor: A Navy SEAL Romance
A fugitive on the run.
A SEAL on a mission to capture her.
And a high-stakes chase you don't want to miss.
I'm stuck on a speeding train.
Racing from one risky op to another to keep the memories at bay.
If I slow down, my head plays tricks on me and I lose control.
So I'm hunting her now. Brandy Ballinda. The sexy street vendor who got herself into a world of trouble.
She makes me want to jump off the tracks and get my feet grounded, so I can be the man she needs.
I'm not the only one pursuing her, but I'm the only one who'll catch her.
Brandy was meant to be mine.
Growing up in a circus family, I started running cons at a young age.
Make them believe in what you're selling and you've got them hooked.
But I blew it when I tried to trick Steel Knight.
He saw through my act and into my soul.
Instead of bolting like every other man in my life had done, he stayed.
I don't know if I can trust this mystery man with his seductive words and enchanting smile.
Maybe he's playing me for a fool.
But if his act turns out to be legit, he could be my hero.
Steel Valor is a standalone military romance and the second book in the Knight Security series.
Warning: This book is full of edge-of-your-seat excitement and page-melting passion. Not appropriate for readers under eighteen.
Release date: December 26, 2021
Publisher: Larken Romance
Print pages: 320
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) entertaining story (1) escapist/easy read (1) happily ever after (1) heartwarming (1) satisfying ending (1) sex scenes (1)
Content advisory: Mature content over 18 only
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
Steel Valor is live and FREE in Kindle Unlimited.
This action-packed romance will take you on a sexy adventure through Rome and Monaco in fast cars, helicopters, and circus tents. Steel is a chaotic military contractor who can't control his inner warrior. Brandy is a brave tightrope walker who brings him to his knees. Their journey is epic and unforgettable. Download it now and enjoy the ride.
"Kiss me, Steel. Make me forget."
He pressed his forehead to mine. "I can't be gentle with you, Brandy. It's too much."
"I don't want gentle. Kiss me hard."
He growled and grabbed the hair at the base of my scalp, tilting my chin up and positioning my mouth in the perfect angle to be kissed. "Are you sure?"
His mouth crashed down on mine, our lips moved together frantically, his tongue forced its way in. Yes! This was exactly what I wanted. To be kissed like I drove him crazy and he couldn't hold back.
One huge muscular arm wrapped around my waist and tugged until my back arched, and his massive cock, clearly hard, pressed up into my belly. He pulled my hair and deepened the kiss, his tongue circling mine in an epic ballet.
I didn't know if anyone could see us, but I didn't care. This kiss was everything. So intense. So urgent. But I could tell he was still holding back. I broke the kiss and moved my lips to his ear. "Tighter," I whispered.
He froze like he was processing what I'd said, so I said it again.
"Tighter, Steel. Till I know I'm safe."
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Steel Valor: A Navy SEAL Romance
“Love is like walking a tightrope thirty thousand feet in the air. It’s bloody terrifying. And it’s amazing.” — Donna Grant
Chapter 1 The Check Never Came
"I've always felt lonely."
My friend tilted her head and took my hands in hers as we huddled on the steps of a narrow alley behind our hotel. "Girl, me too. I thought I was the only one."
Her touch warmed my skin, and I wished I could pull her into a deep hug and make this all disappear. "You're not the only one. Even with lots of people around me, I always felt alone."
"Well, we have each other now. Right?"
The sheen of sweat on my forehead beaded up and dripped down my temple. Darn humidity in Rome in the summer. "Yes. No matter what. You can count on me."
Rico would be here soon, so I had to make this quick. The subtle warning I'd given Delilah last night had failed. She'd brushed me off and returned to his side today.
Tonight was my last chance because Rico was planning another party, and I knew it wouldn't end well for Delilah. I'd have to lay my soul bare for her and pour salt in my own fresh wounds, but I could suffer that if it would save her from the same fate.
"Sometimes, because I was lonely, I made bad decisions." I swallowed the lump in my throat. "I'm gonna tell you about it because I think it will help you too."
I had to start way back at the beginning where I met Rico. "I grew up in the circus."
"Really? How cool?"
That was the normal reaction anyone had when they heard about my childhood. "It was awesome in all the ways you might think. Talented performers, exotic animals, cheering crowds."
"I've never even been to the circus, but I've always wanted to go."
She'd only seen the public part of the circus. I'd grown up in it, so I knew all about the dark side of the big top. "Have you ever heard of the Flying Ballindas? They were a famous high-wire act."
"Like tightrope walkers? No. I haven't heard of them, but you'd never get me up there. Uh uh. No way. I'm terrified of heights." She leaned back, and her pretty brown curls swayed as she shook her head.
"My dad always told me about the Ballinda Factor. That if I just believed I could walk the high wire, I'd make it to the other side."
Her eyes blew wide. "You walked on a tightrope?"
"Yep. I'm a descendant of the Flying Ballindas. They told me I'd inherited the gift of balance from my ancestors, and the Ballinda Factor would keep me safe. But you know what? It was all hype. Positive thinking can't overcome gravity, and it won't save you when you fall from eighty feet up with no safety net." It seemed so obvious now, but when I was growing up, I was so torn between my loyalty to my family and my lack of desire to be part of the act.
Her forehead creased as she struggled to take in my crazy story. "Why was there no net?"
"Family tradition." I let go of her hands and pressed my back to the cool brick wall.
"You gotta be kidding me."
"Nope. They said the net wouldn't work anyway, and if you relied on it, you'd fall, so no net. Ever. Even high above the hardest concrete, no harness either. My dad plummeted to his death in front of a huge crowd." I crossed my arms over my chest to squeeze away the ache in my heart caused by talking about my dad's fall. If I could just get that one moment back, I could've tried to stop him. He wouldn't have listened, but I could've at least tried to save his life.
She gasped and covered her mouth. "Oh no. I'm so sorry."
"Thank you, but it taught me something more important." I checked both sides of the alley to make sure Rico hadn't spotted us. He'd be furious if he caught me talking to his girlfriend.
"Don't let anyone talk you into walking the high wire without a net."
She stared at me for a long second then broke out into a nervous laugh. "I know, right? Like what if you're a total klutz and they tell you you have to balance on some thin wire or die?"
"It was just like that. Except I'm not a klutz. I just happen to pass out sometimes, which is not ideal for a high-wire act." We both chuckled, but the awkwardness of the conversation made it stilted.
Her phone buzzed and she glanced down at it. "Rico's coming to pick me up." She smiled and her eyes lit.
I took her hands again and squeezed them. "My friend, with Rico, you're walking the high wire with no net."
She frowned and looked down. "How do you know this?"
"When Rico joined the circus, I was desperate for love."
"Your circus?" She looked up at me slowly. "You loved him?"
I nodded and held her gaze so she could see the honesty in my eyes. "I fell hard. He was a troubled teen. His mom sent him off to work with the crew to learn some discipline, but he didn't. All he learned was how to manipulate people."
"You were talking like this last night too. I'm sorry if he hurt you, but it's not like that with us. He loves me."
She let go of my hands, breaking our connection, but I took them back in mine. I felt like our touch could somehow transmit my feelings through our skin and my words would carry more weight. "I thought he loved me too. I thought we'd be together forever. He promised me we'd travel the world."
"He promised me that too." Her lips bowed into a pouting frown. She was so beautiful. Too pretty and kind for Rico and his games.
"It's all hype." My stomach turned as my mind filled with the memories seared in my past. Strange men touching me, feeling dirty and confused, wondering why Rico would ask me to do such horrible things. He was so convincing, and I allowed it to happen because I was desperate and lonely. I didn't think anyone else could love me.
"How do you know when it's hype though? How do you know when it's real?" If she was like me, she'd sensed Rico wasn't genuine. In her heart, she knew something wasn't right. I did too back then and didn't listen to my gut.
"I don't know, Delilah. You have to trust your instincts. Deep in your soul, do you believe me? Think about it."
She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together. "I don't want to believe you."
"He gave me this ring." I held my right hand next to the identical one on her left hand.
"It's just like the one he gave me."
This last bit of the story I had to tell her would cut deep, but it was important she had all the information she needed to make this decision for her future. "I'm gonna tell you the brutal truth right now." I made a cross over my heart. "I swear on the Ballinda name that Rico asked me to have sex with his friends for money."
Her mouth dropped open. "Wha… Did you do it?"
This was the hard part. "Not the first time," I replied quietly.
"But the next time?" she whispered back.
I couldn't look her in the eye any longer, but she needed to know, so I kept talking with my eyes closed. "Yes. I was drunk and I jacked a guy off with my hand. He gave me a hundred dollars. Rico convinced me he was looking out for me. He said we only needed enough to get us through until he got his big check from a client."
"He told me he's waiting for some money to come in too."
I looked up at her pretty brown eyes, so innocent and sweet. "He's still running the same con."
"He is?" The way her face twisted into a painful grimace tugged at my heart strings. I'd been her not too long ago. "He doesn't love me?"
"No. The check never came," I shook my head, "and he started asking me to do more than hand jobs."
"He made you do it again?"
"Yes. Lots of times." The shame burned like corrosive acid, but I had to share it to save her. "And he took the money."
Her eyes turned glossy. "Are you saying I'm headed down that road?"
"Yes. He's grooming you for it. I know it. No matter how lonely you are or how bad things have been in your life, don't let his smooth talking and promises persuade you to do something like that."
"I can't trust him. Can I?"
"No. I'm so sorry." I pulled her into a hug and her shoulders heaved. "He's not worth your tears. Rico is toxic. He'll ruin your life like he did mine."
She cried into my shoulder, as I fought the sting behind my eyelids. The pain of Rico's betrayal never faded. It only changed to be less vivid, but the bitter wound always remained.
I withdrew the envelope of hundreds from my purse and pushed it into her hands. "Take this. Use it to get home. Don't tell anyone except me where you are because he'll come looking for you. He doesn't like his girls leaving him."
"You want me to leave? What about you?"
Rico had two other girls on the line that I needed to warn, but I didn't need to tell Delilah that part. "I'll follow behind you as soon as I save up some money. You go first." I patted her shoulders and smiled. I was getting through to her. This was good. "I can handle Rico. You get going and protect yourself. You can avoid all the pain I went through if you just leave now."
She crinkled the cash in her palm as she nodded and stood up. "Okay. Thank you for telling me this. I'm sorry I didn't listen last night."
I stood up too, smiling with the joy that this was almost over and it had gone so well. "It's okay. You got the message now, right?"
"Yes. I'm worried about you though. Please come find me so I know you're okay." Delilah was one of the nicest people I'd ever met. I was so happy to save her from Rico.
"I will. Text me your address, and I'll come visit you as soon as I can."
She popped up on her tiptoes to give me a tight hug around the neck. "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too but I'll see you soon." Headlights passed by the alley and I had a feeling Rico was close. "You'd better go. Hurry."
"Okay. Thank you."
"You're doing the right thing."
She kissed my cheek and ran up into the hotel to gather her things.
I took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from my brow.
Reliving the past and admitting it all out loud left a sour taste in my mouth. I leaned against the cool wall and slowly blew out the breath I'd been holding. That conversation had drained me to the core, but it worked. She'd believed me and left him. My heart soared for her and all the possibilities ahead of her. She could go to college, start a career, fall in love with a real man. One who protected and cherished her heart instead of tossing it on the chopping block. Those men existed out there somewhere. I had to believe it, and Deliliah deserved happiness not misery.
Next on my agenda?
Warn the two other girls Rico had brought into the fold.
Chapter 2 Anyone Here Speak Italian?
Outside a rusted old warehouse in Birmingham, Alabama, my adrenaline spiked as my team prepared to breach the building.
The heat signature had shown five men inside. We had eight highly trained operators at strategic entry points around the perimeter. As a well-oiled team of former SEALs and Special Ops, we could do this kind of extraction on auto-pilot. Our muscle memory ran us through it like a dance routine.
We also knew things could go south in a heartbeat. This wasn't Afghanistan or Iraq where we had an evac team ready to lift us out of a sticky situation. And we hadn't done enough prep. We hadn't confirmed our target was even inside, but I didn't want to wait. I ordered the raid tonight to give him less chance to bolt.
Brandon Ballinda was our target. He'd been living off the grid and on the run for years. The feds had dubbed him "the Flying Ballinda" like the famous high-wire circus act because of his ability to evade capture by a thin wire.
When my contact at the FBI asked Knight Security to assist with the tracking and capture of one of America's most wanted criminals, I jumped in with both feet. For me, it had become a minor obsession. I'd spent weeks zipping around following anonymous tips, throwing caution and protocol to the wind. We had to flesh out any and all leads instantly or the elusive Ballinda would fly away again.
A small part of me was hoping Ballinda wasn't in that warehouse. I enjoyed the chase too much and when it was over, I'd be alone again in my head. Not an easy place to be.
Right now, we had explosives ready to blow and five men inside who were about to have an awakening.
"On your count, Talon," I said to my team through the comms we all wore to communicate.
"Ready. Three, two, one…" Boom!
The doors blew off and we entered through the dust. They scattered. I fired three warning shots over their heads and they hit the ground.
The brave gang bangers were shaking like leaves when faced with a professional tactical team. Not one of them ran. Damn. No chase tonight.
"On your belly. Hands over your head."
Slowly we approached the five men and disarmed them.
After everyone gave the all-clear, it was my turn to talk.
"We're looking for Brandon."
"We don't know no Brandon," the guy beneath my boot said.
I leaned down next to his face with the barrel of my gun in his line of sight. "You sure?"
"Yes." His hand swung out and swiped my gun to the side.
The red haze seeped in. "Did you touch my weapon?"
I struggled to keep my vision clear. I had to. I couldn't lose it right now. Everyone was watching. This asshole touched my gun.
"Never touch my weapon."
"Then get your piece out of my face, fucker."
That was it. I was not responsible for my actions. I kicked his ribs and threw up sand. Red sand through the red haze.
What the hell?
There was no sand here. This was not the desert.
Or was it?
Suddenly we were surrounded by tangos coming in hot. I took the one closest to me out with my fists. I was about to finish him off when something pulled me back.
A man had me by my upper arms.
I elbowed him in the nose.
"Ow. Chill, man." He smacked the back of my helmet.
He dragged me backward and the haze lifted.
We were retreating from the warehouse.
The guy I'd been guarding was bleeding from his mouth.
Talon was squinting and shaking off the hit I'd just given him with my elbow.
He pushed me into the waiting van and I fell backward. Everyone filed in and we were off.
A few shots bounced off the armored vehicle as we sped away.
Dammit. I'd lost it again. A flashback. Out of control. Huge mental error.
"You okay, man?" I asked Talon, feeling like shit because the dude never said anything, and I clocked him for no reason.
"Remind me to never touch your weapon." He tested the bridge of his nose with his index finger and thumb.
"Never touch any of my junk and you'll be fine."
"Don't wanna touch your junk. Stinks like skank."
"Stinks like your momma, Talon." I wagged my finger at him.
"My momma wouldn't go near your crazy ass finger."
We sped along the highway back to base camp, which in this case was the Knight Security office building.
"Ballinda wasn't there." I stated the obvious, but I was angry we'd missed him yet another time.
"No, man." Magnum's voice rang out from the front seat, and he made eye contact with me in the rearview. "And you beat the shit outta that kid for no reason."
"He touched my gun."
"So I've heard." He shook his head.
"T." My brother Vander called me by my nickname with a serious warning in his tone.
"Don't say it, V." Vander was the only one I'd told about the flashbacks. The other members of the team, if they'd noticed, hadn't mentioned it to me. It wasn't Vander's place to spill my secret now. Brotherly trust and all that jazz.
"Don't do shit that makes me have to say it." He gritted his teeth and kept his eyes on the road.
"I won't. I didn't. He touched my gun."
Nobody responded. I'd overreacted again. Shit. These guys didn't miss anything. They knew I'd blacked out.
A text on my phone provided a good distraction. It was from my contact at the FBI, Special Agent Lachlan Cutlass.
Cutlass: Ballinda is in Rome.
Cutlass: I'll send you the coordinates.
Me: We just raided the Birmingham location.
Cutlass: He's not there.
Me: Your timing is crap.
Cutlass: He's in Italy.
Me: Extradite him.
Cutlass: Can't wait for extradition. Go there and capture. We need him in the States in a week.
Cutlass: He needs to testify against Ocampo to save his own ass.
Me: You sure he's in Rome?
Cutlass: We're sure the twenty phones he just bought are in Rome.
Twenty phones meant twenty more women at risk of being trafficked.
Me: On my way.
I glanced around the van. "Anyone here speak Italian?"
They looked at me like I'd blown a gasket.
Only one person raised his hand. Auggie. The former Russian Spetsnaz. "Sì."
Then I was taking Auggie. "V, drop me and Auggie off at the airport. Tell Stella we need a pilot ASAP."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Magnum asked.
"Me and Auggie are going to Rome." I grinned.
He turned and gave me the stinkeye. "Why dafuck would you do that?"
"Like he was here?" he sneered.
"No. Hopefully he's really there this time."
"Why don't you verify his location first?" Jade, our only female team member and technical expert, chimed in.
I shook my head. That would take time we didn't have. "Got a one week deadline and he's slippery. We need the element of surprise."
She laughed. "Good luck with that."
"A castle? Really?"
Auggie followed me into my room in the Castello di Monastero just outside of Rome. It felt more like a wine cellar with its low sandstone walls and dark wooden beams.
"It's defendable." I pointed to the one long narrow window in the room. "Remote with only one road in."
"We're here to abduct a pimp. We don't need a fortress." Auggie set his gear by the door and checked the bathroom. Old habit. Always clear a room after you enter.
"He's not a pimp. He's a trafficker and he's feeding women into Ocampo's cartel." I didn't even mention how Ocampo was feeding much of America's drug addiction. It was the women that kept me up at night. How he treated them like collateral and shipped them around like cargo. "I'm going to town to look for Brandon right now." I moved to my bag to prep my weapons.
"Not a good idea."
I stilled and stared back at Auggie over my shoulder. Was he really challenging me? "We're here. Let's move."
"Less than fourteen hours ago, you bashed a kid's face."
Yes, definitely challenging me. "He reached for my gun."
"So what if he did? You're lucky that kid didn't die."
"I wasn't gonna kill him."
"Coulda fooled me."
"We talking about this?"
"Somebody's gotta talk to you. You're outta control."
"I was not for one second out of control." Okay. For a few seconds, I was, but I knew it was coming. That was progress. "I don't need you to get started. This'll be easy. I'll find Brandon tonight. We leave tomorrow."
"Then why two rooms? If we're here for a few hours, we don't even need one." He propped his hands on his hips like he'd come up with some huge evidence of my insanity.
He threw me with the change in topic. I had Stella book two rooms. Seemed obvious to me. "We need two rooms."
"You're a weird ass motherfucker."
"And you're normal?"
"You've been jacked up since Colombia. Taking back-to-back high risk missions with no downtime. You're losing it."
I rushed him and pinned him to the door with my forearm on his neck. He let me do it because I'm his senior, but he could easily take me down. "Don't repeat that. I'm in prime form. I'm fit for duty. Don't talk shit about me to anyone, or I'll spoil what I know about you and your little side business." I didn't know the details, but I'd heard from Stella that Auggie had a side hustle when he wasn't working ops for KS.
He narrowed his eyes and threw me off. Not with his full strength but enough to let me know he was serious. "What I do on my own time is no one's business."
We stared each other down, both of us contemplating taking this to the mat. I'd never had an issue with him before, and it irked me he was speaking up now. "My mission. I make the calls."
"Roger that," he gritted out.
Auggie and I had been through hell together, and he'd saved my skin many times. In the end, we were brothers and I trusted him.
"You can stay here if you need your beauty rest." I pointed through the wall to his room that also had a bed made up for a king similar to the one in this room. My room.
He shook his head and walked over to his bag. "No. I'm coming with you." He mumbled something in Italian that involved the baring of his front teeth.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means you need me."
He was right. I did need him as my interpreter and, truth be told, I wanted him at my six. "Then prep your shit and let's roll."
Chapter 3 It's a Steal
The afternoon heat didn't stop goosebumps from rising on my skin when I saw Rico sauntering toward my booth.
I'd had a good sales day and skimmed a little extra using the con where I shorted the customers. I showed them the proper change then distracted them while I slipped half the bills into a hidden pocket in my skirt.
My conscience felt a little guilty skimming money off the profits, but a girl's gotta do what she needs to survive. Besides, most of the customers were associated with Rico so probably scumbags just like him.
I was wearing purple satin scarves around my head and neck. I also had them tucked into the top of my skirt. Gold coins dangled from my hips and halter top. I was dressed as a fortune teller because we were running the gypsy con today. Rico had provided me with various stones to sell to specific customers after he'd convinced them of the value. He had a long speech about the connections he had in Africa to source the stones.
He dropped a bag of stones on my cart. "One of these will be picked up today. The other tomorrow. They're marked. Don't mix them up."
"Have I ever mixed them up?"
He leaned over my cart and huffed in my ear. "You screw up a lot."
That familiar pain struck me. Even without the skimming, I made a lot of mistakes, and the numbers never matched. Rico knew this and he was rubbing it in.
I pushed him out of my personal space. "I do the best I can with the money, but I've never given someone the wrong stone."
His face changed from annoyed to his pleasant Rico Suave face. I used to love that face when he gave it to me. Now it made my skin crawl. "I'm sorry. I'm a little off. Delilah didn't show up for work today." His eyes shifted, and his mouth moved like he was chewing gum.
I organized my table and pretended I didn't care, but inside I was cheering for her. She'd listened to me and heard my message. I could have possibly saved her life last night.
"You didn't say anything to spook her, did you?" he asked.
"Me? Of course not. She probably just overslept or got lost somewhere. I'm sure she's fine." I hid my smile by pretending to be super interested in the contents of the bag he'd brought me.
"Doesn't matter anyway. I got a new girl starting tomorrow. You train her on all the jobs."
Oh no. Rico was adding girlfriends faster than I could scare them away and much faster than I could afford. "What's her name?"
"Haven. If you teach her, make sure she gets the cash part right. I don't need anyone else messing up."
"I don't do it on purpose." I did sometimes, but many times, it was an honest error.
"I know. You've been a good girl, and we've known each other a long time. I still wish you'd come to more parties with me, but you're good at moving the stones."
After what happened between us, I would never go to a party with him again. "Not my scene anymore."
He leaned in and lightly gripped my upper arm as he pressed his lips to my cheek. I closed my eyes. I used to love that. "If you change your mind…"
I shook my head, and as he walked away, he passed a man in the street who was walking toward me. The two men could not be more opposite. The one walking toward me was tall and rugged. He walked with humility, trying to blend in to the crowd, but he was so tall and his beard so scruffy, he still stuck out among all the cleanly shaven Italian men.
When he passed Rico, his gaze tilted slightly to the left, and he looked over his shoulder to check out Rico from the back. It was a casual look, but I wondered what made him turn.
My heart pittered when he strolled closer. I thought for sure the man would walk right past my booth, but he slowed down and stopped to look at my stones.
He was handsome. Dark thick eyebrows, light brown eyes, steep, strong jaw, and short messy hair. He had that bad boy look. Like he knew how great he was and he didn't need to project any kind of persona or attitude to convince me.
"Would you like to know your future?" I shuffled the Tarot cards and smirked at him. He looked like the kind of guy that didn't believe in cards or astrology, so I was daring him to admit his curiosity.
He didn't answer. He just perused the table, watched me shuffle the cards, and then his gaze came to mine. His eyes darkened and narrowed.
Phew, wow. Dude was gorgeous. It wasn't fair that God made men so beautiful. "It's only twenty-two euros." I used that number so there would be more bills for me to skim when I made the change.
I placed three cards in a row. "This represents your past, present and future." He scowled at the cards and fear tickled my spine. Getting started before agreeing on a price was a trick to confuse the customer and bait them into feeling obligated to pay after I'd finished my spiel. "Oh. This is unusual. The past shows the Angel of Death haunting your journey." I placed my index finger on the middle card. "In the present, you are at a critical crossroads. You must choose the high path or the low path. Darkness or light. If you choose darkness and deceit, the Angel of Death will come for you. If you choose light, the Goddess of Fortitude will spare you, but she will demand an act of tremendous valor in return." I'd embellished a little, but mostly it was true. The cards showed him making an important choice in his timeline, and the future was half black, half white.
I smiled and held out my palm. "Twenty-two euros."
When he reached into his back pocket, I noticed his thick watch looked ultra waterproof and expensive. His huge biceps contracted, and his narrow torso twisted. I'd never been turned on by someone pulling out their wallet before, but the way this man did it, I had to bite my lower lip to keep from gaping at him.
He counted out forty euros. I'd memorized that the change for forty was twenty-eight, so I counted that out and showed it to him in my hand. I was hesitant to do the skimming con on him considering the way his eyes were watching so closely, but I needed every euro I could get right now. When I counted it back to him, I moved the bills over with one hand but curled my fingers around the twenty with the other. His eyes followed the movement of the change in my hand, and he missed the part where I slid the twenty off the table and stashed it in my pocket.
He took the eight euros without looking at them and placed them in his wallet. Then I got to watch the wonderful motion of him putting his wallet back in his jeans.
I smiled and said thank you. He still didn't say anything, and I realized he hadn't spoken since he'd walked up to my table.
His scrutiny made my skin burn, and I started to fidget my feet and bounce my hips. Why did I feel like running?
"Well then, goodbye, and I hope you enjoy your vacation if you are on vacation, I mean, and if not then in that case, I hope you enjoy the beautiful day."
My throat felt dry, and I gulped down some water from a bottle in my cart. Maybe he didn't speak English. I hadn't even thought of that. So many Italians spoke English, I'd become lazy with it.
Finally he spoke. "I want that rock." His deep voice tremored like a loud church bell as he pointed to the one that Rico had designated for his buyer.
"It's a stone and that one is sold. How about this one?"
"I want that rock. How much?" His accent was clearly American.
"I'm sorry I can't sell you that rock because my boss has already promised it to someone. This one is very similar to that one, and I'll give it to you at a steal for four hundred sixty-seven euros."
"A steal, huh?" He quirked his lips, and I couldn't take the time to wonder what he meant by that because when the man did that he became infinitely more sexy. It wasn't a smile, but an ironic twist of his beautiful lips that sent an unfamiliar sizzle of lust zipping around in my body. What was it with this man? No one had ever had this effect on me. I was always too cautious, too skeptical, too afraid. But something about him intrigued me so much that I forgot all my usual self-defense mechanisms.
"It's a great deal. These precious stones come from a rare mine in Ethiopia, and you won't find them anywhere else in the world.
I caressed the top of the stone with my palm and rubbed it.
His eyebrows rose, and his smirk deepened as he watched my palm circle the top of the stone like a genie rubbing a lamp. If he wasn't absolutely gorgeous and way out of my league, I'd think he was flirting with me. Or maybe he had a childish side, and in his head he was making puns about rubbing the stone. He wanted to play? I could flirt with the best of them. It would never lead to anything, but I had no problem with a little kidding around for a hoot.
"You see if you rub it like this." I wrapped my fingers around the girth and slid them down. My fingers split apart because the rock was much wider at the base than a penis. "They say you can evoke it's healing powers."
His eyes were glued to my hand. He cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He must be hard up for some action if my hand on a rock was turning him on. I was surprised. He could walk into any café on this street and order whatever tall drink of woman he wanted.
I had to keep teasing him. This was too much fun. I loved watching his eyeballs nearly pop out of his head as I tightened my grip and twisted my hand back up. Both of us had completely forgotten about the stone that was sold. We were totally focused on the one in my hand.
"If you really want to bring on the magic, take two hands and rub that sucker like you're trying to polish out the scratch you got on the side of your momma's car when you stole it and took the corner too short."
I grabbed it with both hands and pumped up and down. The only thing that pulled his eyes from that rock was my cleavage when I bent forward.
Slowly, a tiny tip of his pink tongue came out and wet his top lip then his bottom like he was licking the last sprinkle of chocolate after devouring an extra dark vanilla buttercream Bordeaux from See's Candy.
Okay, now he was mocking me. He had to be joshing. Men did not walk around the streets seducing unsuspecting street vendors. He had to be an actor, and I was on hidden camera.
Even if this was all a ruse, I was having fun. The air between us filled with tension, but the humor floated beneath it all. We both knew this was funny as hell. Me playing the evangelical psychic and him playing the voyeuristic tourist. You couldn't make this shit up.
"I swear sometimes I rub this stone so hard because I believe. I truly believe if I generate enough heat and friction, the eternal pent up energy of the rare gem inside will be drawn out in a fountain of mystical lava." The rough edges of the granite scratched my skin and brought out a rosy glow. Shoot. I'd almost convinced myself the rock was about to spooge all over my fingers.
I doubled down on it, pumping my torso, my hair flying, his wild gaze bounding from my boobs to the table then back to my boobs.
Another tall, handsome guy walked up behind him and looked down at the scene unfolding on my cart.
"Here it comes. It's coming. Can you feel it? I feel it. It's gonna be huge. That magma has been in this rock for thousands of years. It's gonna explode all over the place. It's gonna heal you and heal me. It'll heal this whole darn plaza."
The guy who came up looked totally puzzled, and I did not get the sense he saw the humor in our prurient behavior, but the first man, the totally gorgeous stranger who walked up to my booth and said barely a few words to me, was definitely into this with me, loving it, and enjoying it.
His lips even tilted up at the sides and his eyes twinkled. He loved my lewd shenanigans.
The friend tried to ask him what was up, but he held up a hand to shush him.
I kept up my pumping, my chest heaving, the cart shaking under the intensity of my movements. "And boom!" I let go of the stone and turned my palms up, spreading them out like a firework. I imagined a huge plume of smoke and fire and sparkling dust coming up from the rock and spreading out in an arched cone in the air. I was smiling big when I looked at him again. I slowly lowered my hands and my grin grew wider. That was crazy and fun.
He smiled too for a long time. Finally, he cleared his throat and broke out of his daze. "I'll, uh, I'll take that one." He motioned to the rock I had just jacked off and reached back for his wallet again. This time I could see a prominent bulge under the zipper of his jeans.
Maybe he didn't think it was as big of a joke as I did. Who knew what had just happened, but I'd sold a stone. That was all that mattered in the end. I could fake a sex act if that's what the customer wanted. But that was my limit. I'd never really do it for money. Never again. But teasing a guy on the street? Absolutely.
I held my palm out in front of me at the level of my breasts. I was going to ride this man to the end of the con and seal the deal. "Four hundred sixty-seven euros, please."
He quickly grabbed five hundred and handed them to me. Oh shoot. What was the change? I hadn't memorized it, and I couldn't do the math that quickly. I'd need a day and a few notebooks of paper to figure it out. I'd have to fake it. Hopefully he was still dazed from my show and wouldn't notice.
I counted out what felt like it could be the change and showed it to him. When he reached for it, out of habit, I leaned forward to distract his eyes as I did the slight-of-hand trick and slipped a few bills into the pocket of my skirt.
"Thank you for your business, sir."
He took the cash, glanced at it, and slowly slipped it into his wallet and then his lovely bicep came out again to tuck it into his back pocket. As I was preoccupied by that, his deep voice startled me. "You stiffed me."
Um. Was he talking about the stiffie in his jeans?
"I stiffed you?"
"The change. You stiffed me on the change. Twice."
Oh shoot. Darn. He'd seen it. He'd caught me. I suddenly found it hard to breathe. My heart thumped against my ribcage as if I was being forced to walk on a high wire. What should I do? My father's voice. Lie. Always lie. You can convince them of anything. "No. I didn't."
"You stashed some of my change to the side after the Tarot card scam, and then did it again after you copulated with that rock, which was incredible, by the way." He winked and narrowed his eyes.
Oh boy. "I didn't. Uh. You're mistaken." I had an escape route planned for emergencies. I hadn't used it before, but the urge to flee flared strong in my chest. He had incredibly long legs and looked like he could run fast. His friend appeared to be equally tall and fit. I had a slim chance of escaping if I ran.
Whatever. I was a Ballinda. If I believed it, I could affect the outcome. Right?
So I took off running.
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