He swallowed the growl, but not before Irina noticed it. She glanced sidelong at him, a smile dancing on her lips.
“Frustrated?” she murmured.
“Not at all,” Grant replied with a groan.
“How about now?”
She reached over and slid one hand up his leg, her touch so light he could barely feel it. Grant groaned again, louder this time, and flung his head back against the headrest. Outside, the traffic was still at a crawl.
Irina sighed and settled back in her own seat—but her hand stayed where it was. “Would it be quicker to walk?” she wondered aloud.
Grant scowled out the window. They were only a few blocks away from his apartment building. But…
A few flakes of snow stuck to the windshield, and he fought back a full-body shudder. Only a few blocks… but a few blocks of icy winds. And snow. Snow that would stick, become damp, and slip down the back of his collar.
“The hell with that,” he growled as he slung the car into reverse. The car’s suspension took a hit as he backed up onto an empty patch of sidewalk to break out of the gridlocked sea of cars. A timely spin of the wheel brought them out on a side street.
His panther belonged in the jungle, in a world of damp heat with the warm smell of soil and growing things. But Grant? He belonged here. The concrete jungle. His jungle.
The car’s electric engine didn’t roar as he slipped in between two moving cars into the far lane, taking advantage of every break in the traffic. It was as quiet as he himself would have been, stalking through the hot, lush jungles of Bolivia.
Irina’s grip on his leg tightened as he found an empty lane and picked up speed.
“Is this a shortcut?” she asked. “In the opposite direction to where we were headed before?”
“Shorter than being stuck in a gridlock? I sure hope so,” Grant replied, eyes on the road. He eased around another corner, his mind playing out the options. Left here—no, the next block.
A map of the borough’s streets and buildings flickered through Grant’s mind. The next block would bring them to one of Frankie’s hotels. He knew there had been road work outside the building. It stuck in his mind so clearly because he’d imagined Frankie’s fury at the disturbance.
If he remembered correctly, the construction had only finished the day before. He hoped that most drivers wouldn’t have heard about the completion and would still be avoiding the area.
One way to find out.
Grant hung another left, a new plan sparking in his mind. Irina was right. Who said they needed to drive all the way, after all?
Yes. The newly sealed road was smooth under the car’s tires, and the Hotel Lyon gleamed like a golden spire in the snow. Irina was leaning forward, peering out in front of them. She gave Grant a questioning look.
“Is it just me, or are you driving in circles?”
“Strategic circles, I promise.” Grant slowed down and eased into the parking level of the Hotel Lyon. The warden recognized him and waved him through; Grant coasted onto the automated parking.
“This is our stop,” he announced.
“You live in a hotel?” Irina asked then covered her mouth. Sadly, with the hand that had previously been on Grant’s leg. “Uh, no judgement meant, just—surprise.”
“We can stay here if you’d prefer,” Grant said quickly, “but my apartment isn’t far. Honest. We’re at least—oh, a few hundred yards closer now than we were at the restaurant.” He grinned. “And it’s a lovely walk. I promise.”
Irina looked doubtful and shrugged. Before Grant could leap out and open the door for her, she turned the handle and stepped out.
Grant followed her, lightning-fast, and offered her his arm.
She took it, raising one dark eyebrow. “A romantic walk in the snow, when there’s a whole hotel of warm, cozy rooms above us? Why not?”
She was right. The master suites of the Hotel Lyon were warm. All of Frankie’s hotels were perfectly appointed.
But something inside Grant rebelled at the idea of spending his first night with Irina in a rented room. He wanted to take her home, to his bed, not to some temporary den.
Grant turned to lead Irina further into the building, avoiding both the elevator up to the hotel lobby and the way out to the street. She frowned, questions clear on her face, and Grant held her closer.
“Our choices aren’t just traffic jams or cold, wet feet,” he explained, lowering his mouth to her ear and feeling her shiver in his arms. “Let me show you how I managed to make it to the age of eighteen in this city and still not know how to drive from one end of this block to the other…”
There was a plain metal door set into a dim corner in the back of the parking level. Grant tested the handle and grinned as it gave under his hand.
“Step one, complete,” he said triumphantly. “Not that I didn’t have an excellent save ready if that was locked.”
“Of course not.” Irina’s eyes were wide. “So, you don’t live in a hotel. You live… in a maintenance corridor?”
“The finest of all maintenance corridors!” Grant swept into the dingy hallway, and Irina laughed, spinning with him. “Come on—follow me…”
“Where are we going?”
He explained as they walked through the underbelly of the building, through the corridor to a storage area and past a startled security guard. Grant flashed a grin at the old man but slipped past him before the poor guy could figure out whether stopping people from breaking out was part of his job.
“I grew up in this neighborhood, and Mathis’s family owned most of the block back then. So, we did what any young sh—uh, young kids would do. We explored. Ah—here we are.”
He put his arm around Irina’s shoulders just as they walked into a rush of cold air, stopping in front of a heavy metal grille. He’d never been entirely sure what this architectural quirk was for, although he and Mathis had exchanged theories. Since the grille was roughly door-shaped, the more likely of these theories (the ones not involving ninjas) was that it was something to do with ventilation or an emergency exit—if emergency exits were habitually left bolted shut.
Grant put his hands on the grille. The metal was cold under his fingers. “If I remember correctly—and if no one has fixed this in the last fifteen years…”