Start reading this book:
It wasn’t slumming, but it had been a long time since he’d run an errand for his boss. It was a beautiful late spring morning, not yet too hot, which was good because Rakesh Anand was suited up. He never knew who he might run into. Americano—no cream ever—in hand, he walked along Trade Street toward the main metro police station. He took the wide cement steps to the front, but the double glass doors were locked. A maintenance crew initially ignored his imperative tapping.
A woman—the only one who actually seemed to be working—finally looked up, and he could feel her sexual appraisal through the glass. That’s right. Not too many Tom Ford Windsor suits prowling around on a Saturday. He knew how to wear top designer suits and had dozens. He met her gaze. Counted slow to five and then hit her with his smile.
“Let me in?” he mouthed and pointed to the door.
She shrugged helplessly.
He swallowed his inclination to casually toss the f-bomb. He hadn’t been able to vent his feelings publicly since he’d started in the prosecutor’s office fresh out of Yale and had calculated his career rise. Too many idiots with cell phones imagined themselves the next viral post. He preferred to get the attention for his brain and work ethic. His expensive tailored suits, cut body and mane of jet-black hair that brushed his jawline added a touch of wild that threw the competition and allies off. Rakesh exploded the Indian nerd stereotype.
Ambitious prosecutors with state level and federal politics on their radar did not have ‘Hollywood hair,’ as his mom called it. Too bad. He liked his vibe, and women loved it. And envied it. With his hair, darker skin tone and air of command, he stood out in any room of suits, and that was before he opened his mouth to make his well-reasoned points. He was impossible to ignore, outmaneuver or forget.
Men and women in his way had certainly tried, and he enjoyed mowing them down or dodging an end run around them. But he was self-aware to the point of pain, and when his father had walked out again, this time for good when he was nearly thirteen, his hair had been an unsubtle middle finger to his father and his heritage.
Rakesh turned away from the doors, unwilling to knock again.
It wasn’t as if going around the building was difficult. It was just inconvenient. The city council had wanted the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Main to look more inviting—why? People shouldn’t want to go there. But well over six figures had been dropped to landscape around the building so now there was a lovely expanse of freshly mowed and watered grass littered with the last of the drooping azalea and dogwood blooms. The crepe myrtles were just starting to pop white and vibrant raspberry pink.
Rakesh had no intention of ruining his Allen Edmonds dress loafers by traipsing through nature so instead he returned to Trade Street and walked around the block to the back of the station to enter through booking.
He walked through the parking lot and toward the back door, savoring the sun on his skin and the intense flavor of his coffee. A police car passed him, and then another, pulling in with a dramatically wide sweep and skewing up near the steps into the building.
Rakesh ignored the cop and the passenger and jogged up the stairs. The door swung wide and another cop burst out.
“Watch it. We got a live one,” the cop said.
“Always a bonus.” Rakesh cheerfully stepped aside. “The dead ones create too much paperwork.”
The cop was unamused.
As it turned out, the detour was a gift or a pain in the ass depending on how he viewed being nearly headbutted into a planter of pink weigela and barely holding on to his coffee.
“Ouch! These cuffs are way too tight, and I have skinny wrists. What are you auditioning for—a reality cop show? I’m not a menace to society. It’s not like I’m a prize cage fighter. I’m a third of your size.”
“Arguing. Resisting arrest.” The arresting cop grimaced as the other cop came up to help. “Might be on drugs. Not making much sense. Motor mouth.” He jerked the offender out of the car and the slight woman who was still verbally haranguing the cop, staggered.
“Hey.” Rakesh took more interest. “Easy.” She looked like a kid with a wealth of shiny blue-black hair cut in a jagged chin-length bob with electric-blue tips. Her hair covered her face, and the cop didn’t allow the prisoner to get her feet under her before the two cops half dragged, half carried the slight suspect up the stairs.
“Rani?” Rakesh asked in astonishment.
Rani Kapoor’s head jerked up just as she tripped on the step, and she lunged into him.
Rakesh fell backward into the planter, holding his coffee aloft, and trying to steady Rani with his other hand. His ass and suit were on their own.
“Hey, watch it.” Both cops jerked Rani upright, and she yelped.
“Rakesh, are you okay?” Rani’s huge eyes lined with dramatic cat-eye lavender rounded in concern.
He popped to his feet, likely mussed, but he played it cool.
“What’s going on?”
He’d known Rani since childhood and was best friends with her cousin, Rohan, and what a romance novel would term frenemies with her older sister Shanti. Damn, Shanti was going to go a level-five tornado on the Fujita scale when she heard Rani was being manhandled downtown.
Anticipation lit his spine.
“Are you okay?” he demanded.
Relief flooded her face, and then shut off like a light.
“Mind your own business and step aside,” the cop said.
“Crimes like potential abuse are my business, Officer Menken,” Rakesh said silkily noting the cop’s name. “What is Rani Kapoor being collared for?”
“What? You know her?” Officer Menken demanded.
“All you people think…” The other cop broke off as Rakesh waved his card—Assistant DA in charge of the Special Victims Division in Charlotte, North Carolina—under both cops’ noses.
“You were saying,” he prompted quietly. “All you people…?”
“I didn’t think I heard you correctly.”
He could feel Rani’s worried gaze, but he didn’t shift one molecule of his regard away from the arresting officer with the attitude. Rani was a lot of things—dreamy, outside the box, impulsive, fiercely loyal, giving—and the first to help out when his mom was short-staffed at her Indian grocery store, or she had an extra moment to swing a hammer on a Habitat for Humanity crew that he supervised. One thing she was not, was a criminal.
And he had no patience with anyone who took one look at someone’s skin and burbled up a plethora of nasty stereotypes.
“Tell me about the suspect,” he prompted in the cultured, low voice he’d honed to intimidate.
“I’m not a suspect. I did it, Rake. But I… Is that coffee? Oh, I would kill for some. Well, not literally kill. I shouldn’t say things like that around cops, right?”
He should have added exasperating to his list of Rani traits.
“And I would love a muzzle,” Rakesh said with resignation. He held his cup to her mouth so she could sip.
“Thank you,” she sighed happily.
“Not another word. Not one. Not two. Zip.” He pressed his finger on his lips.
“Now officers, what is the suspect accused of?”
“Caught her red-handed. Neighbor called it in. Vandalism. Three cans of spray paint in her hands—same color as the painting.”
“You taking up art, Rani? Or heading to a demonstration not on my radar?”
“Zipping,” Rani reminded him. “Or I will zip for more coffee.”
He smiled. Shanti was going to be fire and brimstone on wheels. Durga roaring in, weapons in hand primed for battle. Again, he held his cup to Rani’s lips. This is what it would be like when he had a child someday only the cup would be a sippy cup, not a Starbucks venti.
Again, an image of Shanti popped into his brain.
“Garage door. Professor’s house, but he’s off in one of those cold countries, Sweden or somewhere—sabbatical whatever that is. A high school teacher’s renting. A woman,” he said, with relish, and then he showed Rakesh a picture he’d taken of a giant sun spray-painted on a barn-style garage door and an anatomically correct heart with words written in the arteries. Rakesh took the cop’s phone and scrolled closer on the picture and read the words. They were a love poem.
He eyed Rani speculatively, suddenly understanding exactly what had happened. Rani might be a poet. She might be in love. But she hadn’t scribed such a vividly accurate picture of a heart. She was covering for her cousin, Rohan Kapoor, a cardiothoracic surgeon.
No wonder Rohan hadn’t wanted to get together for pickup basketball or a few rounds of golf over the past couple of months. He’d fallen hard for a piece of ass he couldn’t bring home. And Rohan was about to finish his prestigious Duke residency and fellowship. An arrest would have been devastating.
Rani would do anything, anything for family.
But Rake was shocked Rohan would let her take the fall.
“Looks like I found a lovelorn lesbian.” The cop laughed.
“Not really the point now is it, Officer?” Rake’s voice went even quieter and the mocking grin on the cop’s face faded.
He could pull rank when he needed to, but not for a moment did temptation whisper. This was going to be too much fun to miss. Ideas swirled through his head. He’d been strategizing his next two moves—career and personal—for the past couple months and Rani’s chivalry was a gift he would savor while opening.
“Thank you, Rani,” he murmured.
“Am I really in trouble?” she whispered back, and the fear that tinged her wide-spaced eyes hit his chest hard, but he couldn’t reassure her in front of the cops.
“Phone, Rani?” No way would Shanti take his call. She’d ghosted him ten years ago after a Yale law acceptance, a bottle of Salon blanc de blanc and a midnight swim that had gone to his head.
Hers too he’d thought.
He’d acted on long-repressed desires and had the most sexually passionate and emotionally intimate experience of his life, which he’d never once come close to replicating. He’d definitely tried, too many times to count. Instead of starting his life with Shanti, that night had killed his hopes and dreams—if only his desire and wishes could funeral-pyre themselves and cool into ashes that floated away down the Catawba River.
The past was the past. Rakesh had always been future-oriented, but with Shanti, it was time for a reincarnation.
“Phone,” he said again as she blinked up at him, worried.
“Back pocket,” Rani said.
“That’s evidence,” Officer Menken objected.
Rakesh held the iPhone up to her face to open it, and then scrolled through her connections.
“You aren’t going to call Shanti, are you?”
Hell yes, he was going to call Shanti. Anticipation bubbled in his blood, and the day just high-speed-trained it from ordinary to fucking fantastic.
Rakesh blanketed his cool around himself. Shanti had changed in law school. Hardened. Wielded ambition like a weapon, and while it was hot AF, he couldn’t overplay his hand.
But he had been dealt some cards. Finally.
Back in the game.
“Why isn’t she in your contacts?”
“I don’t want my family to know. Can you spring me? I’m working on a soul mate app for my dissertation. It’s a game really,” Rani prattled stunning him a little and irritating the cops more. “I’ve been working on a survey. I can find you the perfect wife in exchange for…” She wiggled her hands in the cuffs like he’d forgotten.
Damn, but she just kept digging. Potential charges rolled through his brain like he was in the Harris Teeter checkout line.
“Zipping, remember?” he reminded her softly.
“Attempting to bride an officer of the court,” Officer Menken nearly sang.
“Shanti’s number, Rani.”
“Don’t I need a real lawyer?”
Rakesh barked a laugh. “I’ll lead with that. Her number.”
“I don’t know. She’s listed under Ruckus. You know the opposite of Peace.”
Rakesh smiled, charmed. Rani could always dispel the worst mood in the most unexpected way. “What does she have you listed under?”
“Changeling and Demon Seed. Rude, huh?”
Rakesh laughed and nodded to the two cops to proceed with Rani into the station. “I’ll be right there.” He shared the contact to his phone, and then on Rani’s he pushed the number.
Some days were better than others for getting out of bed, and today was going to be one of his best.
Shanti rolled over in bed and stared at the light shafting through her bank of windows that overlooked Charlotte’s downtown. Usually, she was up hours and hours before this but a few times a year she gave in to her inner sloth—or in this case a mild hangover—and didn’t budge.
Her phone buzzed. She groaned and peeked.
“What’s up Raksasi?” Shanti often called her younger sister monster.
“I believe you mean Rakshasa,” a voice…his voice…purred over the phone.
Wide awake now, Shanti shot out of bed. “What the hell are you doing calling me? Why do you have Rani’s phone? Is she okay? Shit. What happened?” Shanti fired off question after question as she yanked something out of her closet. No. That blouse wouldn’t do. It was sheer. And she hadn’t put on a bra. She couldn’t deal with whatever she was going to have to deal with if her boobs interrupted the conversation.
“How bad?” She kept the fear out of her voice, a skill she’d mastered as a high school freshman after a humiliating setback.
Shanti gulped in a breath. She had to be calm. Sane. Too bad she wasn’t her calm, soothing older sister, Asha. But no. Asha had had too much grief this spring. Shanti would deal with whatever happened to Rani solo. Her family was still reeling with disappointment and humiliation from the no-fault scandal.
“Spit it out, Rake.”
“I stopped spitting in preschool,” he said, and from long experience, Shanti knew, she just knew that Rakesh was enjoying himself. She could just imagine how smug he looked right now. He wouldn’t look so smug with her handprint on his supermodel cheekbones.
“Tell me, Rake. How bad?”
His lazy laugh did something to her body—snaked in hot and decadent and slithered through her lower extremities in a way that was unacceptable. She’d freaked out ten years ago and still had emotional bruises. He’d moved on with enviable ease.
“Depends on your perspective.” His voice sounded like a muted diesel engine rumbling to life, and she remembered how that voice felt against her clit. She pressed her thighs together hard as if that would stop the flood of heat competing with the memories and physical sensations Rakesh so easily triggered.
“The news is very good for me. Better for you, but that is of course a matter of perspective, and yours is often skewed.” She could hear amusement in every damn syllable.
He had two cheeks. Two palm prints. Hers. She’d mark him.
The satisfaction that image brought felt primal. Why was he the only person who threatened her studied cool? She needed absolute control around Rake. Every sighting had the power to throw her off her game. She held the phone away from her face and breathed in slow and deep.
At least he hadn’t FaceTimed her using Rani’s phone.
“Stop speaking in riddles. Where are you? Where’s Rani?”
“At 601 East Trade Street.”
Shanti’s mouth opened, formed a W to ask him ‘what?’ but then she googled. Crap. There was no reason Shanti could think of for Rani to be there. She must have been arrested. And of all the former prosecutors in Charlotte, Rakesh Anand, who should be out on a golf course, or jet-skiing around Lake Norman, or banging some blonde blind, had to be mister diligent and working on a Saturday.
Didn’t he have a whole crew of underlings for that?
She was being punished.
She deserved it.
But she wasn’t going to take it lying down.
“Hope you have your head in the game, Rake. I’m on my way.”
“I’m ready to engage, Shanti.”
How the hell did he manage to make that sound like a sexual invitation and a threat?
“I know you’re stopping for a latte. You know my favorite poison,” he said. “Venti. Thank you. Your sister drank mine.”
Rakesh disconnected and Shanti tossed her phone on her bed, peeled off her hastily grabbed, mismatched clothes and jumped in the shower. This was war. She needed armor. And a hazelnut latte.
The show did not disappoint. Shanti strode in wearing what he suspected was an Alexander McQueen classic red blazer and red pencil trousers paired with a clinging black top. Her hair was tucked into an elegant twist. Her makeup subtle and flawless except for the matted red lip that stirred up so many memories.
Dear gods she was beautiful.
And fired up.
Rakesh sipped the Americano she’d slipped him—probably wishing it were a dagger—and did something he rarely did. Observed. Stayed out of Shanti’s way—for the moment. And watched her operate.
Ten years had sharpened her keen intellect and killer instincts. And seeing her today, watching her read the room and slice right through the cops’ charges and morphing their cocky leering into something resembling fear with a touch of racist and sexist disdain, had everything inside of him settling on a plan. Not fully developed, but he had a strong outline.
He’d been right to wait despite his mom’s escalating pressure to marry and start the family she felt he should want.
He did want.
He’d just never found a woman who came close to arousing, intriguing and emotionally moving him like Shanti had.
Shanti was the one.
He was done fighting her pull.
Time to reel her in and close the deal.
“I do agree that you have a case to bring charges,” Rakesh interrupted smoothly, which had Shanti—who’d yet to take the chair the cops kept offering her—swiveling toward him, her eyes hot with barely repressed betrayal.
He’d been doing an impression of a relaxed bystander in the corner, but it was time to take over.
Rani’s large, expressive eyes widened even more, making her look like an anime character, but he squashed his conscience.
“And you’ve processed her.”
“You let them fingerprint and mug-shot her?” Shanti demanded, and for the first time her icy, professional demeanor hinted at a crack.
“Shanti, it’s okay,” Rani whispered, tugging at her sister’s suit jacket. Rani was the only one who was sitting. With all the psych classes she’d taken, one would think she’d understand a power dynamic more to her advantage.
Rakesh let the accusation roll off him.
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing that is okay about you being cuffed, arrested and processed.” Shanti’s gaze never left his face. He could hear her thinking. Imagined she was already plotting revenge.
Something was probably wrong with him that he found that hot, but he didn’t care. He was all in. Hell, he’d probably been all in since he’d met her at age eleven, and she’d issued her first challenge—a district spelling bee championship on the line. He’d hated spelling but had hated losing even more.
“These are not minor charges.” Officer Menken clearly wanted to hold Rani just to piss off her beautiful and arrogant lawyer.
Rake didn’t want that. Even he wouldn’t go that far. So he had to take control like he always did.
“My office will assume the investigation from here,” Rake cut in softly when Officer Menken opened his mouth to speak.
Now he had everyone’s attention.
“What?” Shanti’s voice was an icy arrow meant to lodge in his heart she’d ripped out so efficiently years ago.
“Vandalism?” Officer Menken said skeptically.
“Rani targeted another woman.” Rakesh stretched this truth without one pang of guilt. “It could be a sex crime. Or domestic violence. Or a targeted hate crime,” he said softly.
Shanti was so still he might have been scared if he’d been truly planning to turn any of the paperwork over to one of the eager hotshot attorneys in his office.
“Rakesh,” Rani expostulated as the two cops, who’d been flexing in various power move attempts that Shanti had brushed aside with a flick of an eyelid, settled down in their chairs eying him with new interest, and finally respect.
“Really,” Officer Menken said with so much relish, it practically spilled on his uniform.
“Really,” Shanti drawled, her voice softer this time even as her gaze was a stiletto heel to his face. He could hear the dare in her voice. The challenge.
“Really?” Rani squeaked.
“I won’t know until I launch a full investigation.”
“So we better hold her. Interview the woman to ensure she’s safe.”
Rakesh definitely wanted to know who’d captured Rohan’s heart, but if Rohan knew his cousin was jeopardized, he’d ruin his career, and Rakesh had no intention of derailing his own to save a friend or his family. Not when he didn’t have to.
“She can go,” Rakesh said, picking up the file the cops had started. “She’s not a flight risk. I’ll be in touch,” he said to Shanti.
End of Excerpt