“Oh. My. God. He's sucking my big toe.” Kyla shuddered and tried to pull her foot away. “Leave off, okay? And give me back my shoe.”
“This is hysterical.” Lisa Barlow, Kyla's best friend, burst into laughter. “Kyla Harris, big-time scientist, tries to invent a tactical weapon and ends up with an aphrodisiac. I'm not certain the bigwigs at the DSTO will take this as a serious achievement.”
“No, this is so not funny. It's a complete farce.” Kyla groaned and crossed her arms over her chest in an effort to avoid the groping fingers of the two men kneeling in front of her. She tried to stand, but hands grasped her shoulders and a wet tongue trailed down the side of her neck.
“Kyla, honey, I'll give you anything, tell you anything, if only you spend some time with me.”
She twisted in the chair to find an old codger called Greasy hanging off her neck. Weathered and wrinkled, he smelled of day-old garlic. “ Eww ! Get off me, Greasy. You're old enough to be my dad.”
“Don't listen to him, Kyla. I'll give you whatever you want if you let me come home with you,” said one of the guys on his knees in front of her.
She glared at the man. He now had his hands wrapped around her thigh, the fingers intent on creeping under the hem of her cotton shorts. She slapped his arm, hoping to discourage him.
“No, no, choose me, Kyla.” This from his sun-bitten mate who still had possession of her toe.
Lisa, head down on the table, continued to laugh, the chuckles bubbling up and erupting in loud guffaws. “Man,” she gasped, “this is too funny. I never thought I'd see the day when anything fazed you.”
“Enough already! Help me get ' em off.” Kyla managed to push Greasy away and went to work on the men at her feet, kicking out until she dislodged her toe from the cavernous maw of the man on the left. “Manny, we need you. I need you,” Kyla yelled at the top of her voice.
The bartender and owner of the small establishment just waved to her from his seat at the scarred timber bar top. Like a large number of the old-timers in Alice Springs , he sported a long, matted beard and floppy moustache. His skin looked dry and leathery, the price for living in the harsh heat of outback Australia . His faded blue eyes twinkled amid a roadmap of creases and crow's feet crevices around his eyes.
“No way in hell, darlin '. You're on your own. Whatever that perfume was you used sure did a number on those closest to you. One whiff and they've turned into your lapdogs. I'm not about to be caught in the same honey trap.”
He chuckled, ending in a snort. “Just got rid of one woman who wanted to run my life. Not about to go the same route again.”
“But, Manny, I need you.” Kyla managed to get up from the seat after kicking away the two men at her feet. Before she could escape, Greasy came after her again.
“Kyla, me little heartthrob, come home with me. I'll treat you like a queen. You'll have the run of the house, I promise.”
Lisa finally stopped laughing long enough to try to help. “Greasy, you live in a grotty , one-room humpy down by the cemetery. That's not exactly a palace.” She pulled at his arm, but he twisted away and went for Kyla again, hands outstretched to clutch at her.
“Enough!” Kyla jumped on the chair and then onto the table. “You stay away from me, Greasy.” She stomped on the fingers creeping across the tabletop. The man she'd kicked in the mouth had finally recovered.
“I'll tell you all my secrets if you'll only come home with me,” Greasy said with a lunge at the table.
Oh God, Lisa was right. The DSTO—the Defense Science and Technology Organization—wouldn't be impressed at all if they heard about this. She normally worked in the tracking and detection technologies section down in Melbourne , but she was sick to death of doing nothing but analyzing boring algorithms. Hence the year's sabbatical she'd taken from work.
She'd needed the break, but hadn't been able to discipline her mind. She'd wanted to get back to simple inventing. Use her science background in a way that fed the need to be useful and productive. And given she worked for the Department of Defense, her mind had immediately zeroed in on something that could help soldiers in the field.
How about cologne that disguised a man's scent—sweat, cigarettes, fear, excitement—from the enemy? She figured it had to be a winner. Now look where it had led her.
With a yell, she stomped on the hand inching toward her right ankle. “Get off, you morons. This is not funny.”
“Ah, yeah, it is.” Lisa laughed again as she dragged Greasy away from the table.
“Seems you could use some help over here, ma'am.”
Kyla groaned and closed her eyes a moment. Not another one. Enough is enough. She bared her teeth in a growl and turned to face the owner of the voice.
“Now listen here…” The words petered out and her mouth fell open as she caught sight of the man in question. Tall—at a guess, she figured six-one, six-two. Dark hair cut short, military style. Maybe he was in the Marines, what with the American accent. Chocolate brown eyes under thick brows. Eyes that at that moment twinkled with suppressed humor. A kick-ass smile that curved his sensual lips. And a hero to boot.
Everything Kyla liked in a man, as far as looks went anyway. Yeah, baby, you can come park your shoes under my bed any time you like. Well, a girl could dream, couldn't she?
Reality kicked in when Greasy made another lunge at her and grasped hold of the bottom of her shorts. Kyla tried to twist away, but she didn't have enough room.
“I don't think so, buddy. The lady isn't interested. Time for you to leave.” Her rescuer grabbed Greasy by the back of the collar and yanked him away from the table. There was only one problem. Greasy still had hold of her shorts. Kyla gasped as her elasticized-waist shorts slid down to her knees, exposing the tiny black thong panties she had on. She didn't know whether to play the outraged virgin and cover her pubic area or try to tough it out.
“Oops.” Her hero turned to her and grinned. “Sorry, ma'am.”
He frog-marched Greasy out the door before dealing with the other two men. When he was done, he brushed his hands together and returned to the table, running his gaze over Kyla. “Anything else I can do for you, ma'am, now that I've taken out the trash?”
Kyla came to her senses and yanked her shorts back up to her waist. “They're not really… Damn, it was all my fault. Shouldn't have tried out that cologne.” She clambered down from the table and fished around on the floor until she found the black ballet flats she'd been wearing before that idiot had attacked her toes.
“Sure you're okay, ma'am?”
“It's Kyla. Kyla Harris.” She pushed the hair back from her face. “And yes, I'm fine. Thank you for your help, Mr.—”
“Logan Matthews, at your service.” He held out his hand.
Kyla backed up a pace. “Ah, maybe you shouldn't touch me.”
“Huh?” He frowned. “Is there a problem?”
She sniffed at her wrist, her nose twitching as she caught a faint trace of the bergamot and lemon oil she'd added to the cologne. Had the aphrodisiacal properties evaporated yet? Logan still stood there with his hand outstretched. He'd think her incredibly rude if she ignored him. Keeping her distance, she stretched out her arm and gripped his hand. A shiver trickled down her spine as he slid his palm across hers. Hmm, nice. Firm but gentle. Warm and inviting.
She shook her head. She was acting like a bimbo. “You're American. Been out here long?”
“Nope, arrived yesterday. I'm still trying to find my way around.”
“I figured you were new.” She pointed to his dark suit and the business shirt and tie he wore.
“Hey, who's your friend?” Lisa interrupted.
Kyla indicated the other woman. “Meet my house buddy Lisa Barlow. Lisa, this is Logan Matthews, a visitor from the States.”
“Not so much a visitor.” He nodded at Lisa. “I'm here for the next few years.”
“In that case, you must be stationed out at Pine Gap. Military?” Lisa stared at him as if avid for information.
“Ex-Marine, ma'am, now working for the government.”
“Don't tell me you're one of those eggheads?” Lisa groaned. “You know, the guys who can't think of anything else but the next project they have to complete. Nothing but statistics and figures.” She plopped down at the table Kyla had been standing on and propped her chin on her hand. “Time we got a few fun-loving men to liven up all the locals. New blood, that's what we need.”
Kyla smacked her on the shoulder. “Hey, don't be rude to our guest.” She turned back to Logan . “You want to join us for a drink?”
“Why, thank you, ma'am… er , Kyla.”
“You sit over there by Lisa. I'll take the chair on the opposite side of the table.”
“You got a problem sitting by me?” He lifted his arm and drew in a breath. “No BO smells here.”
Embarrassment sliced through Kyla. Oh God, the man probably thought she was a total dimwit. With a sick grin, Kyla dragged one of the chairs around to the opposite side of the table and sat. Logan shrugged and took the seat beside Lisa.
Lisa signaled Manny for service. “Hey, Manny, can you bring us three pots?”
“Pots?” Logan raised his eyebrows in question.
“That's a glass of beer for someone who doesn't understand Aussie slang,” Lisa said.
“Not likely, me darlin ',” Manny replied. “I'll pour them and you come and collect them. No way am I gettin ' any closer to that mantrap there.”
Kyla snorted. Mantrap? Yeah right. Only in my dreams.
With a roll of her eyes, Lisa headed to the bar and grabbed their order. The frothy foam capped the glasses and oozed over the tops to slide down the sides and mingle with the beads of condensation already forming on the outside.
Logan leaned forward and snagged one of the beers, lifting it to his mouth and taking a healthy draft. Kyla found herself focusing on the movement of his throat as he tilted his head back and finished half the drink in one deep swallow.
“I guess you needed that.”
Logan grimaced as a bead of sweat rolled down his face. With the back of his hand, he swiped at the drop of moisture before it dripped off his chin.
“Too hot for you?” Kyla took a sip of her own beer before continuing. “If you're going to spend time in Alice , you'd better think about doing something about those clothes. The new guys out at Pine Gap learn quickly that people just don't wear suits out here. It's okay inside because most places are air-conditioned or have ceiling fans, but go outside? It's a whole different story.” She paused and took another sip of her beer. “This your first trip to Australia ?”
Logan nodded and eased a finger inside the collar of his blue shirt. “Yeah, I arrived late last night. I stayed at the motel up the road until I could get a rental vehicle. Unfortunately, they didn't have any free at the airport when I landed.” He slipped the knot on his tie and pulled it off, stuffing it in his jacket pocket.
Kyla smiled. “Well, that's a start, but you might want to get yourself some khaki shirts and shorts. Way more comfortable in this heat.”
“Is it normally this hot?”
“This isn't really hot. Hmm, maybe thirty-five degrees, if that. Wait until we get a scorcher. The temperatures top forty or more then.”
He took another gulp of the amber-colored alcohol in the frosted glass in front of him. “Hmm, that's—”
“Around about one hundred and four Fahrenheit,” Kyla interrupted.
“Well, that's impressive.” He shucked his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair. Then he rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and opened the top four buttons of his shirt. “You a math whiz?”
“No, she just has a calculator for a brain.” Lisa lowered her voice. “She's supposed to be on holiday, but she can't leave the facts and figures alone. Once a scientist, always a scientist. Although if tonight's experiment is anything to go by, she's about to be kicked out of the big-boys' club.”
He raised his eyebrows and stared at Kyla, a small grin kicking up the corners of his mouth. “Is that why those men were crawling all over you? Some experiment? What did you use on them?”
Kyla found her gaze fixed on the vee of his shirt. A trickle of sweat rolled down his neck and disappeared among the dark curls now showing. She had an insane desire to lean over and trace the same path. Taste him. Breathe in the scent of him. Tease him until he begged for more.
Heat flared in the pit of her stomach. It surged through her blood and made her body tingle. She gasped and squirmed on the seat, conscious of a persistent ache centered between her thighs. She wanted to grab Logan , toss him on the table and have her way with him. And right at that moment, it wouldn't have mattered who watched.
Whoa, Nellie, hold your horses. Damn, what had just happened? The first good-looking man to pay her attention and she turned into a raving nympho ? Okay, so she hadn't had sex in a while—a long while if she was being honest—but that was no excuse. She drew in a shaky breath and released it slowly with a stern admonition to her hormones to stand down. With a shake of her head, she tried to concentrate on the conversation.
“See, she invented this male cologne she thought would disguise all human smells. Instead of that, it turns out what she came up with is something that draws the men to her, kind of like an aphro —”
“Lisa!” Kyla grimaced. Damn it, Lisa should know better than to talk about what Kyla was working on. “Sorry, Logan , but it's not something I can share.”
“She works for the government and everything is hush-hush. Stupid if you ask me.”
“Enough, Lisa. I'm sure Logan isn't interested in any of that.” Kyla cast Logan a surreptitious look from under her brows to find him watching her, a smile on his lips.
“A perfume that acts like an aphrodisiac, eh?”
Kyla shook her head. “No, it's a cologne , not a perfume. There is a difference, you know.”
“Give me a whiff and I'll tell you if it works.”
Before Kyla could react, he scooted his chair around to the other side of the table and leaned in close. Then he buried his face in the curve between Kyla's shoulder and neck and gave an exaggerated sniff.
She shivered as his warm breath wafted across her neck. Damn, so much for keeping her libido in check. Her mind kicked into gear and she remembered the effects of her earlier experiment. She had no idea how long this stuff would last. She didn't want Logan attracted to her because of some aphrodisiac she may have invented. She jerked herself away from him.
“Hey, no sniffing. I'm not some bitch in heat.”
“I can assure you, darlin ' , there's no way I would compare you to a female dog.” Logan grinned and went back for another sniff.
All of a sudden, Kyla smelled the rancid odor of old garlic and onions and felt the sloppy, wet slide of a tongue trailing up the opposite side of her neck. She jumped to her feet so quickly her chair overbalanced and crashed to the floor. Spinning around, she found Greasy on his knees, his hands clasped in prayer supplication.
“Come home with me, Kyla. I'll tell you anything you want to know.”
“That's it! Enough already.” Kyla bent down and grabbed her purse from under the table. “I'm going home to have a shower.”
“Hey, it's okay. I can deal with this old fellow.” Logan stood and faced Greasy. “You remember me telling you the lady isn't interested? Well, the same still holds. Now how about you be a good boy and head off?”
Greasy looked crestfallen, but he stood and shuffled out the door. Logan slid his arm around Kyla's waist and sniffed at her neck again. “See? All over and done with. Now you can stay and we'll get to know each other better.”
She shrugged out of his hold and stepped back, hand held up to ward him off. “Nope, this night is over. I'm heading home.” She looked at her friend. “You coming, Lisa?”
“Sorry, Logan . You're on your own. Why don't you join the guys at the bar? They're having a contest to see who can drink the most piss in an hour.”
A look of horror flashed across Logan 's face. He opened his mouth to respond then slammed it shut. After an audible swallow, he tried again. “Ah…I, ah…I don't drink urine !”
Kyla pressed her lips firmly together in an effort not to grin. Then she made the mistake of glancing at Lisa. They both dissolved into laughter. When Kyla finally caught her breath, she wiped the tears of mirth from her eyes and faced Logan .
“Looks like we'll have to educate you. Here in Australia , if someone asks if you want to go drink piss, they're asking if you want to go out for a beer.”
“You're kidding, right?” Logan shook his head. “This country is crazy.”
“You think that's bad? Do you know how many ways we use piss over here?” She held up one finger. “Someone is pissed at you? They're mad at you.”
Lisa held up the next finger. “Someone is taking the piss out of you? They're making fun of you.”
“I'm pissed off? I'm angry.” Kyla waved a hand at Lisa.
“Or you're going to go out and get pissed, as in you're going to go get drunk.”
The two women continued to bounce Aussie slang phrases off one another, laughing all the while. Logan stood there with a bemused look on his face.
“Or get into a pissing match. Get into an argument or contest.”
“It's pissing down.”
“Pissing against the wind.”
“Or you could tell someone to piss off.”
Logan waved his hands in the air. “No more. I give up. I'll never understand Aussie talk.”
Kyla gave him a pat on the arm. “It takes time to understand us, but you'll get there eventually.” She turned and walked toward the door of the bar, Lisa at her side. “Good night, Logan ,” she called over her shoulder.
She sighed as she opened the door to the white utility truck at the end of the parking area. She wrinkled her nose. It was definitely time to go home and have a shower. Gunning the engine, she peeled out of the parking lot, making for the main highway. “I reek of cheap toilet water.”
“Yeah, you do.” Lisa chuckled. “But at least you know it works. Wonder how long the effects last?”
Kyla shuddered. “Not too long, I hope. The last thing I want is Greasy hanging around.” She paused a moment before flicking a hasty glance at Lisa. “You reckon Logan was reacting to it?”
“Well, he sure seemed taken with you, although he wasn't humping your leg like those other guys were. Maybe the smell wasn't as strong by the time he joined us.”
“Damn,” Kyla muttered on a soft sigh.
Lisa twisted around in the seat. “You don't want him to respond to it? Or…”
Kyla didn't need to see her friend's face to know Lisa had read her right.
“Aha, you fancy him, but you want him to be attracted for all the right reasons. Not because of some icky-smelling cologne. Right?”
Kyla grimaced. “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.”
“But he pushes your buttons, right?”
Oh yeah, he sure does that. But did she want a man who only came on to her because of an experiment? Not bloody likely. She wanted Logan to desire her for herself, not because of what she could or could not do. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Not about to happen again.