dipped toward a silver belt buckle, emphasizing narrow hips and long legs.
Eyes fastened on the man’s broad back, sexual heat blossoming in the pit of his stomach, Gabriel followed his easy progress through the crush.
Hungrily, he watched as the man reached the far wall. And then his quarry paused as if somehow aware of Gabriel’s regard. The man turned Gabriel’s way. Their gazes locked.
The heat in Gabriel’s belly coalesced into an electric sizzle that sent sparks shooting to his groin. He felt unable to look away as a wide, square hand reached up to rake thick, black hair out of the stranger’s eyes. That grave dark stare never wavered from his own.
The man raised an eyebrow. Just one elegant brow. The faintest smile touched his mouth. Heat flushed Gabriel’s face, but he didn’t look away—couldn’t.
Still waiting for Gabriel’s response, the man ran a blunt thumb slowly, consideringly over his full bottom lip.
And just like that Gabriel was rock-hard and aching for it. Well, hell. It had been a very long time. Too long.
A slender youth wiggled off the dance floor and tugged at the stranger’s arm, forcing the man to break eye contact. Gabriel felt a surge of irritation. He watched the tall man talk to the insistent dancer, watched the shadow play of long eyelashes, the tug and tease of full sensual lips, a silent pantomime to Gabriel’s hungry eyes. Gabriel was adept at lip-reading, but in that bad light he could only catch enough to know the man was indulgent, amused by whatever the boy was offering.
Sighing, Gabriel turned back to face the bar, ordering another beer. The bartender provided it with a sympathetic smile, and Gabriel downed it in one long series of swallows, washing away the sizzle in his stomach, leaving only a faint queasiness behind.
If Tall, Dark, and Direct was up for a quickie with a pretty twink, he wasn’t likely to be interested in going another round with a guy ten years older.
Gabriel checked his watch. Just where the fuck was Benny? He ought to know Gabriel couldn’t afford to wait around here all night. He did know.
He risked another look across the room. The twink was near the dance floor talking animatedly with a squat Hispanic with a pockmarked face. There was something vaguely familiar about that ugly face, but Gabriel was unable to place him. He gave it up and looked back at the tall, sexy stranger.
He had vanished.
Gabriel scanned the room again. No. No sign of the man.
The disappointment he felt was out of proportion to…well, to anything. Even the twink had taken rejection with better grace.
This time he ordered tequila. Picking up the wedge of lime, he licked the curve between his thumb and index finger, flicked his wet skin with salt from the shaker, licked it, tossed back the tequila and bit into the lime.
Giving his head a quick shake, he pushed off from the bar. He’d have one last look for Benny, and then he was gone. The night was fucked—in every way but the one that counted.
Gabriel had already passed the roped-off staircase to the second floor with its curtained alcove balconies once when he decided to scope out the upstairs. After a quick check that no one was watching, he went up the steps two at a time. He wasn’t looking for Benny by now—the snitch would have shown if he was coming—but the tequila was singing through Gabriel’s system; he felt restless, strung out, and jacked up. He needed action, needed the night not to be another dead end, another waste of time—time being something he increasingly felt he was running out of.
He reached the second level unchallenged. It seemed to be deserted, the club’s other patrons more respectful of the velvet rope at the foot of the staircase. Gabriel made his way warily down the row of curtained cubicles. While the thudding bass of the music below concealed his footsteps, it also made it impossible to hear anyone else.
Down the hallway, a partially opened door led into what appeared to be a private office. And all at once the night was looking much brighter. Why the hell not? Why not take advantage of this unexpected opportunity to gather information about who exactly was backing Club Madrone?
In two steps he was in the doorway, brushing his knuckles against the wood. “Anyone home?” he asked softly.
Gabriel slipped inside the room. He eased the door soundlessly shut behind him and felt for the wall switch. Light came on overhead revealing a minibar in one corner, a red velvet couch in another, and a heavy, antique desk. On the desk sat a computer. Gabriel considered it, grimly hoping that its secrets would prove more interesting than an inventory of glassware and booze receipts.
The office smelled of recent sex and marijuana, and his body reacted to the scents—and the risk he was taking—his heart pounding in crazy time with the salsa rhythms insinuating their way through the floorboards.
Christ. Maybe it was true what they said about him. Maybe he was an adrenaline junkie.
When a couple moments passed and nothing insidious or dangerous presented itself, Gabriel stepped further into the room and got a better look at two large oil paintings hanging behind the desk. They looked original, reminding him subtly of the Kahlo-style nude downstairs, but these felt more…authentic.
Here the artist had copied no one, and the result was stunning.
For a moment even his cop’s instinct took a backseat while his eyes feasted on the primitive colors and bold strokes. The paintings, companion pieces, vividly depicted sensuous couplings: two men and a woman, two women and a man. He’d never seen anything like them: the brilliant, rich hues of tawny skin and glossy hair, the way the men smiled knowingly at each other, hands brushing bodies in tender caress. He’d never thought of himself as particularly sensitive to art, but these were amazing, even moving…
Mesmerized, body swaying slightly to the throb of the music emanating through the floor and walls, his own sexual need tight and hot in his belly, Gabriel reached out to brush a fingertip over the surface of the nearer painting as though trying to touch the indescribable, seductive emotions on the canvas, emotions he craved but had yet to acknowledge even within himself.
He was leaning closer to get a look at the signature in the bottom corner of the canvas when a scuffing sound jerked him back to reality too late. Beguiled by the exotic sights, the primal beat, and his own personal demons, Gabriel never heard the man behind him until he was seized and pinned face down over the broad oak desk.
He struggled, but alcohol and shock at his own carelessness slowed his reactions. His arms were twisted behind his back, his wrists painfully bent.