Strip You Bare

By: Maisey Yates

She was, however, feeling a little bit ruffled now.

The last thing she had expected this morning when she’d walked into her family’s old French Quarter mansion was to find a very large, very dangerous-looking man sitting in one of the wingback chairs as though he were master of the manor.

It had crossed her mind upon entry that he might be a ghost. Considering the house had been left vacant since Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city, it was entirely possible that her welcoming committee would be someone from the beyond.

Sadly, it was becoming clear that he was flesh and blood, and it would take a lot more than a séance to get his behind out of her house.

Yes, he had a deed saying it belonged to “The Deacons” or whatever, but that didn’t make it a legal document. It didn’t make it real.

The Delacroix family had all but abandoned this portion of their empire after Katrina, leaving their old, beautiful family mansion here in the Quarter to rot. As though it had died in the storm with her father.

But when she’d told her grandfather last week that she intended to revitalize it, to bring the family’s storied Christmas party back to life, he had said nothing that indicated there might be an issue of ownership.

Over the past few months Sarah had felt like she’d lost everything all over again. Her mother’s death following a long illness, the end of her engagement, her grandfather’s failing health.

This house had become her fixation. A way to bring something of her family back to life. To make it glitter again for what might be her grandfather’s last Christmas.

When he died, what would she have? This house. This house that had her family’s blood in the woodwork.

But now . . . this. A very serious wrench in her works. She wanted to scream at him. Wanted to yell and stamp and demand what the hell he was doing messing with her plans.

She wouldn’t, of course. She wasn’t even sure she would know how to throw a fit like that if she tried. Sarah was too used to keeping it all in. It was what you were expected to do.

She had been taught to rise above, while handing down insults that were barely detectable. It made them harder to deflect.

The Deacons. Something about that was familiar. There were a lot of things like that when you were part of a family as old as hers, in a city with a history that was nothing short of macabre. Things you learned about that you were then immediately told to let slip back out of your mind.

This was one of those things, she was almost completely certain.

“Should I start with ‘once upon a time’?” he asked.

“Only if it ends with ‘and you lived happily ever after.’ ”

“I don’t really believe in happy endings,” he said, lifting his arms and putting his hands behind his head. “I figure the best any of us can hope for is making it out alive.” He straightened again. “But in the end, I guess no one does.”

“Well, that’s a charming thought.”

“I’m not known for my charm.”

Not classic southern charm, certainly. There was nothing smooth or practiced about him. Yes, he was wearing a suit, but dark ink bled out from beneath the sleeves of his shirt, evidence of tattoos beneath the perfectly tailored façade. And more than that, there was something about him that simply seemed wild. You could put a collar on a tiger, but it was still a tiger.

Suit or not, this man was a tiger.

And much like a tiger, the sleek beauty he possessed almost enticed an observer to try to touch him. There was something about that kind of strength, that kind of leashed danger; it was terrifying and irresistible all at the same time.

You know, to other people. Not so much to her.

“Well, your charm isn’t that great a concern of mine. I just want some facts.”

“If you don’t know who the Deacons are, I’m assuming we were from before your time, little girl.”

“If so, you look very good for your age.” She dealt out the two-sided statement with ease.

“You think I look good?” He smiled at her, and it felt very much like the predator showing his teeth. A little shiver worked its way down through her body, and it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Which was concerning.

She cleared her throat. “I think you look like a stranger in my house.”

“Then let’s get to know each other a little bit better, shall we?” His accent had taken on a slightly more upper-crust drawl, a mockery of her own, she had a feeling. “I suppose I’m not really that surprised you don’t know about the Deacons. Nice girls like you should not associate with men like us.”

“I would be more impressed if I had any idea what sort of man you are.”

He said nothing for a moment, a half smile curling his lips, as he unbuttoned the cuffs on his shirt and rolled one sleeve up to his elbow. He then focused his attention on the other cuff, unbuttoning it with a maddening slowness that made her stomach turn over. Then he rolled that sleeve up to his elbow.

Exposing his forearms revealed the ink he’d been hiding. Dark, twisting shapes ran from his wrists up past the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. And beneath the ink, there were some very well-defined muscles that were worthy of note.

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