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CLEAN to the BONE by Heather R. Blair (1)

Chapter One

Shit. Shit.

Shit.

Jake Harris clung to the side of the mid-rise townhouse in downtown Minneapolis, watching the distant lights of Saint Paul swirl like those mad carnival rides he’d hated as a child. He closed his eyes to stop the spinning, then opened them again immediately. The only thing more ridiculous than playing Spider-Man on this icy February night would be falling to his death with his eyes shut.

Typical fucking Jake. His sister’s exasperated voice rang in his mind, helping him pull back from the pain and focus.

“Shut the hell up, Stace,” he mumbled. The wind howled in response. God, it was cold, the blood starting to freeze on the edges of his torn shirt. He had to get inside soon or he was going to die. Maneuvering on the narrow ledge was not fun, especially for a guy who wore size thirteen shoes.

Especially when said guy had been shot. Twice.

Pick a window, Jake thought. Any window. Preferably a dark one.

That one. Violet curtains pressed against cold glass. He chose the one closest to his left, because hugging the wound in his right side meant it was marginally easier to move left. Even then, he swallowed a moan of agony as he bent to get the leverage needed to punch open the window with one of the tools he carried. No time for finesse. The sound of glass shattering was quieter than he expected, but his ears were half frozen and filled with the shriek of the wind. It had probably been loud enough for whoever lived in the townhouse. Maybe they were out.

At half three in the morning.

With the way his luck was going, it was more likely that they were not only home, but had an NRA membership, three pit bulls and a basement torture room resembling the one under the pawnshop from Pulp Fiction.

The good news was he probably wasn’t going to live long enough to worry about any of that.

He came within a breath of passing out when he fell into the room but somehow managed to hold on to consciousness.

He pushed himself upright by scooting against the wall and forcing his legs to straighten inch by inch. Once he’d gained his feet, he looked around, trying to clear his clouding vision. He had the distinct but incongruous impression of flowers and heat and bright sunshine.

The falling snow filtered the lights from the street outside a cold winter blue, enhancing the surrealism of being surrounded by high summer in all its glory. He could almost smell the warmth of living green things before he realized the images weren’t real. Paintings. He was surrounded by a dozen or more canvases leaning against the shadowed walls. Amazing paintings. He gaped, blinking a few times, his head such a mess it was increasingly hard to focus. If this wasn’t all some shock-induced hallucination, Stace needed to see these.

Stace.

His fingers groped for his phone, and his eyes closed in relief at the familiar thin edge of his iPhone in his pocket. It hadn’t fallen out when he’d been doing his Tom Holland impression, thank Christ. His grip was weak, though, and it fell to the floor at his feet with an ominous-sounding crack.

“Well, fuck.” If he tried leaning over to pick that up, there was no way—

“Who in the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?”

The voice wasn’t loud or angry. On the contrary, it was a bit soft and befuddled. A feminine voice, very feminine. The words carried with perfect clarity and enunciation and only a hint of alarm.

Jake lifted his head to see a lumpy silhouette in the door. The light flicked on with shocking brightness. He winced, slapping a hand to the wall to keep himself upright. Through slitted eyes he took in the figure frozen on the threshold.

Short, dumpy, a good fifteen kilos overweight, with mousy light-brown hair that stuck up in all directions like a scarecrow’s and big blue eyes behind thick, owlish glasses. She still didn’t look scared, which registered as vaguely odd, but his mind was darkening at the edges. Unconsciousness was looming, but he had to stay awake long enough to warn her, to make her understand . . .

He swayed and those baby blues went even wider. “Are you bleeding?”

“Apparently,” Jake agreed, glancing down in detached bemusement as his blood made crimson starbursts on the hardwood floor. Vertigo slammed into him so hard he would have gone over, but then she was there. The soft, strangely calm woman from the doorway.

Jake blinked at her. His injury was making him loopy. How long had it been since he’d been shot? How long until Darnell’s assholes figured out which building he was in?

Grunting, the woman took his weight, leaning into his side—thankfully the left—as she looked up at him. Her lips were pressed together and she was frowning.

“Breaking my window didn’t do this to you, did it?”

“Nope,” Jake agreed stupidly. “Windows don’t shoot people, guns shoot people.”

She sucked in a breath. “Okay, okay. You need an ambulance, that much is obvious—”

“No.” He shook his head and the motion made them both sway. For a moment they almost went over, but she spread her feet, managing to keep them both up.

Yes. Mister, whatever trouble you’re in, it can’t be worse than dying—”

“Wanna bet?”


He slung a heavy arm around her shoulders, making her stagger as she took more of his weight. Planting her feet again, she managed a good look at him, and for a moment Charlotte Gracen’s brain simply stopped working.

Charlie was pretty damn sure she’d never seen a man who looked like him up close before. The man who had broken into her apartment was gorgeous, like Chris Hemsworth by way of Hugh Jackman: absolutely panty-soaking hot.

Only where those two men were fair, this man was dark, with longish black hair. Hair that right now was damp, tangled and sparkling with melting snow. His thickly shadowed jaw and the line of hair dusting his abdomen under that torn shirt were dark as well.

But the lines of blood that trickled over his skin and dripped steadily to her floor were bright red.

For god’s sake, she really needed to wake up now.

A guy had broken into her home, a guy who was seriously fucking hurt. Had he said something about a gun?

Charlie blinked, trying to focus. Her brain was fuzzy. She’d barely stumbled into bed twenty minutes ago and had fallen asleep as soon as her head had hit the damn pillow. Next thing she knew there had been a god-awful crash from her spare room.

Living on the third floor of the complex meant she’d never seriously considered a break-in. She’d almost closed her eyes again and decided to deal with whatever it was in the morning. Then she’d heard a muffled curse. That had gotten her out of bed, but it hadn’t gotten her awake.

Flipping on the light and seeing this Adonis surrounded by her paintings had halfway convinced her to turn around and go back to bed, sure the whole thing was a dream.

But the sight and smell of blood was one hell of a wake-up call. Along with the icy wind screaming through her broken window. Not to mention the big, hard body pressed against hers that was shivering uncontrollably. Thief or not, he needed help. Now.

No matter what he said, she was calling a damn ambulance and the police and—

“Police! Open up!”

The muscular arm around her shoulders tightened. Charlie gasped and raised her gaze back to his. Blue-gray eyes the color of a winter storm took her in as that booming knock rang through the townhouse again.

“They aren’t the police and you need to be careful. Very careful.” The words were urgent, his voice low and ragged. The accent finally registered and Charlie realized why Australian actors had been parading through her mind. “Don’t tell them I’m here or they’ll hurt you.”

He’d been shot, so it made sense that the police would be after him. But those eyes . . . those weren’t lying eyes. He was scared and not just for himself. Wrapping shaking fingers in her tank, he yanked her even closer, that deep voice desperate. “They’ll kill us both, darl.”

Charlie’s specialty was thinking: cool, rational thoughts that led to a predictable, drama-free and safe life. But just now she couldn’t think at all. Her head spun and her heart raced.

The knock boomed again, seeming to shake the floorboards under their feet.

This was really happening. There was a hot Aussie holding on to her for dear life and bleeding all over her spare bedroom. With people who may or may not be the police trying to break down her front door.

“Don’t let them in. Please.” Those eyes stabbed into her heart. Then they rolled up in his head and he crashed to the floor, pulling Charlie down with him.