“There’s a killer on the loose.”
At that ever-so-dramatic statement, Odin Shaw slowly lifted his head from the comic book that he’d been reading. A gorgeous woman stood in the doorway, one delicate hand clutching the wooden frame, the other pressed to her chest.
He hadn’t heard her approach. His bad. Unusual. Normally, he was highly aware of his surroundings. It had been one hell of a slow Friday for him, and he’d just been about to head down to the bar that waited below—
“Did you hear me?” She let go of the doorframe and hurried inside. A couple of fast steps in her canvas shoes that didn’t make even a whisper of sound. “There’s a killer hunting, and we need to stop him.”
He eased the comic book into the top drawer. Squared his shoulders and tipped back his head as he studied her.
His mystery lady had a tumble of thick curls. She’d tried to pin them up, but the dark locks had slid free to frame her face. No makeup was on her face, but she didn’t need any. He thought she looked perfect just as she was. Wide, dark eyes. Oval face. Full, unpainted lips.
She was small, maybe around five-foot-four or five-foot-five. Nice curves. Actually, some pretty incredible curves and—
“Hello?” She waved a hand in front of his face. “Are you listening to me at all?”
Right. He should speak. Odin cleared his throat. “I don’t believe you have an appointment,” he rumbled.
Her pretty mouth parted. “I—” She looked back over her shoulder. “No one was in the lobby. I thought I could come on in. Figured no line meant no wait.” Now she peered back at him. “Are you Warren Channing?”
She blinked. Her eyes weren’t just brown. They were golden brown. He liked the gold. Liked the warmth in her gaze and he liked the long, long dark lashes that framed her eyes.
“If you’re not Warren, then who are you?” She took another step forward. This step brought her to his desk. Her hands—small, with short nails painted a soft pink—pressed to the wood.
“Odin.” His name came out sounding like a growl.
Her eyebrows rose. “Battle god.”
“Responsible for the creation—and also the destruction—of the world. At least according to Norse myth.” Her smile was quick, and, holy fuck, she had dimples. Sweet dimples that winked at him before she confessed, “I’m a mythology buff. I actually teach history at the college down the road and I—I am rambling.” She blew out a breath. “Odin.”
He nodded. That’s me.
Her head tilted. “I talk a lot when I’m nervous. You should know that I am very, very nervous right now.”
He thought she was very, very gorgeous.
“Since you are sitting in the office at Trouble for Hire, I take it to mean that you’re a PI?”
“I am.” His license was all new and shiny.
“You…work with Warren?”
A furrow appeared between those pretty eyes of hers. Hell. Had he just given her a one-word answer? He needed to do better than this.
And those eyes of hers—they widened.
Damn. He’d forgotten. He’d been sitting. When he stood, he clocked in at past six-foot-four. And with his muscled weight, he could be intimidating.
She backed up a step.
No could be about it. He was scaring the pretty lady. “War is on his honeymoon.”
“War?” She was almost gaping up at him.
“Warren—War. He’s on his honeymoon. I’m running things.”
She licked her lips.
His body instantly jolted. A rather over-the-top reaction to such a simple motion, but it had been a long time since he’d—
“I want you,” she said.
Well, that was blunt. And surprising. But he nodded and figured if his luck was about to turn around this way, then who the hell was he to argue? After the clusterfuck of the last year, maybe he deserved something good.
The lady in front of him definitely qualified as good.
She shoved her hand into the oversized bag that was flung over her left shoulder. When her hand came back up, she tossed a thick—very thick—wad of cash on his desk. “Will that cover it?”
He looked at the cash. Then at her. “What all do you want me doing?”
“I want you to help me stop the killer!” Her breath huffed out. “I need to hire you. That should cover your fee, right?”
He suspected that hunk of cash would cover a dozen PI fees. He pushed the cash back toward her. “Why don’t we start at the beginning?” Because he wasn’t going to take advantage of her. That wasn’t how he’d been raised. The woman was obviously upset about something. He would figure out what it was and try to help.
“The beginning? That’s kinda far back. How about we cut to the current situation?” She squared her delicate shoulders. “I saw on the news that your office stopped that killer a few weeks ago. The man who was strangling those women in Florida.”
Yes, they had stopped him. Odin waited.
“You don’t talk a lot, do you?” She nibbled on her lower lip.
Odin shrugged. When he talked, he had a tendency to sometimes say the wrong shit. Especially where women were concerned. This woman was fucking beautiful, and he was trying to not open his mouth and say something like—
“And you’re really big. Like, scary big.”
He glowered. Then realized his glower probably just made him look even scarier.
“I mean that in the best possible way, of course,” she continued quickly. Perkily. “I bet the bad guys see you and immediately start running.” She nodded and now seemed thrilled. “If they’re smart, they’d run.”
His gaze swept over her. She wasn’t running. Didn’t seem at all put off by him. And damn it all, but he was finding her…intriguing.
The evening was definitely looking up. “Who are you?” He wanted her name.
Her golden brown eyes gleamed even more. “I didn’t tell you? I am so sorry!” She offered her hand to him. Silver rings were on two of her fingers, and a little bracelet jingled around her wrist. “I’m Maisey. Maisey Bright.” Her dimples winked. “And you are the answer to my dreams.”
I would love to hear all about your dreams, lady. He took her hand in his. Made sure to keep his grip easy because his bear-like hand easily swallowed hers. The moment he touched her, a surge of heat zipped through his fingers, down his arm, and straight to his core. Her skin was soft, silky, and her scent reached out to wrap around him. A creamy, decadent scent. Like strawberries and cream. Or strawberries and—
He was leaning toward her. Closing in and his gaze had dropped to her mouth. Okay, sure, it had been a while, but he needed to get himself under control. Odin forced his hand to let her go. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“Okay.” She hopped onto the edge of his desk.
“Oh. You didn’t mean here, did you? But the couch is way over there.” She motioned vaguely as one shoe swung in a quick rhythm. “Look, let’s cut to the chase.”
That sounded like a great idea. He slowly lowered back into his chair. He couldn’t take his gaze off her.
“You stopped a killer before. You and your partner, I guess? War? I like that name way better than Warren, by the way. Sounds a lot tougher.”
He just waited.
She sucked in a breath. “I’m desperate, you see. That’s why I pulled all of that money out of my savings and I came here.” She lowered her voice. “I know some PIs like to deal only in cash.”
They did? Since when?
“If you don’t take the case, I will go to someone else. But after I saw your agency on the news, and since you have such great experience in my particular area of concern, I thought you’d be the best fit for me.”
He would not imagine how they would fit together. He could be professional. He normally was professional.
His gaze dipped over to her swinging foot.
“You stopped one serial killer, so I know you will be able to stop another.”
His gaze flew back to her face. “What?”
She gave an encouraging nod of her head. “You can stop this guy, too. With my help, we can get him locked away in no time. The streets—and my neighborhood—will be safe again.”
He was trying to follow along. Odin hadn’t had a drop to drink from the bar downstairs. Totally sober, but…still confused. “You have a serial killer in your neighborhood?” Was that what Maisey was trying to tell him?
She leaned closer. Her hands flattened on the desk. “Yes.”
He shook his head.
She nodded. “Not just in my neighborhood.” Her voice dropped as if to reveal a secret. “He lives right next door to me.”
Odin stared into her gleaming eyes. Let his gaze sweep over her beautiful face. A few more tendrils of hair had escaped to slide around her cheekbones. “Look,” he began gruffly. “I’m sure you got scared after all the news stories started circulating, but there aren’t serial killers clustering in the streets. You are perfectly fine and—”
“I’m not crazy.”
He didn’t remember using the c-word. He’d carefully avoided that word. War had told him it was bad for business and to not use it, no matter what clients might say when they strode through his office door.
“Is that what you think?” Maisey’s voice notched up. “That I saw what happened to those other women and I got scared and started imagining things? That I am imagining a serial killer next door?”
He had considered that option, yes.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re just like the cops.”
No, he wasn’t. He didn’t have a badge. He had a PI license. “You, ah, went to the cops with this story?”
She jumped off the desk. Began to pace. “They didn’t believe me, either. Why not?” She swung back toward him. “Do I give off some vibe that says I’m delusional? Because I am not delusional, I assure you of that. I know what is happening. I know I am on to something dangerous, and I just need concrete proof.” She pointed at him. “That is where you come in.”
“You.” She nodded. “You’ll help me find irrefutable evidence that the cops can’t deny.” She started pacing again. Fast, determined strides.
“Irrefutable evidence…that your neighbor is a serial killer.” His head tilted as he studied her. She was quite fascinating to watch. The faded jeans she wore clung lovingly to a truly world-class ass.
Not that he was supposed to be noticing things like that. Don’t focus on a client’s ass. He was sure that was probably one of War’s rules for the office.
“Exactly! Undeniable proof that he is guilty!” She spun and beamed at him. “So we have an agreement? You’ll take my case?”
He offered her a strained smile in return but said, “No.”
The wattage on her killer grin dimmed. “Excuse me?”
“Do you watch true crime movies?” His fingers began to tap against the edge of the desk.
“Well, sure, who doesn’t?”
“And let me guess…whodunits, are those your favorite books?” More tapping.
“I love Agatha Christie. Is that some kind of sin?”
Nope. No sin. His fingers kept tapping. “Do you listen to murder podcasts?”
Her chin jerked up. “I might have my own podcast. So what if I do?”
He nodded and his fingers stilled. “I get it. That’s popular these days. And with the shows and podcasts saying killers are everywhere…you started seeing them…everywhere.”
Her jaw hardened. “I’m not seeing them everywhere.” She stalked back toward him. “I’m seeing one killer—one particular killer—right next door. I want you to help me prove that he’s guilty.”
“Yeah, that’s the part I’m getting stuck on.”
He tried to be delicate. Not really his strong suit, but he made an effort. “I can’t take your money for something I might not be able to do. Just wouldn’t be right. Not ethical, you get me?”
“Come again?” Judging by her expression, she obviously did not get him.
“Say I take the case. I start investigating. Only I discover that your neighbor is just some normal Joe and not a secret killer who is hacking up people in his basement.”
“He doesn’t have a basement,” she mumbled.
Not the point. “If I find out you don’t have Dexter next door, then you’ll have lost your savings.” His gaze darted to the wad of money still on his desk. “I wouldn’t feel good about that.”
“Why not? I’d feel great.”
She…what? He narrowed his eyes as he studied her. He could not figure out this woman. So much for tact.
“If you can prove I’m wrong, that’s fabulous. Wonderful.” She skirted around his desk. He turned to face her, and the legs of his chair squeaked. “I will be able to sleep at night,” Maisey continued as she came to a halt inches from him. “I’ll stop feeling like I might be next on his hit list. Take the case. Guilt or innocence—that’s what we’re proving. You have real experience at this—”
Not so much. He’d handled one serial killer case, and he’d primarily worked in the background on it. She was under the way wrong impression. He tried to correct the situation. “I, uh—”
“Your agency stopped the last killer that terrorized this state.” She was directly in front of him. Her delectable scent surrounded Odin. “With your experience and my enthusiasm—”
The lady had plenty of enthusiasm, all right. He’d definitely give her points for that.
She leaned forward and put her hands down on the arms of his chair. “We can do this!”
He knew what he wanted to do. It involved leaning forward and kissing that delectable mouth of hers.
Not what she was trying to hire him to do.
“Help me,” Maisey entreated. Her voice was husky and her gaze was so deep and Odin didn’t want to look away. He couldn’t look away. “What do you have to lose? I am paying you, and you just might bag a killer. Double win.”
He searched her eyes. Considered the situation. “If I tell you no, what will you do?”
Her lips pressed together. Then, “Don’t tell me no.” Almost a plea.
“What will you do?” Odin pushed.
She swallowed. Straightened. “I will find another PI. I told you that already. I won’t give up. You might think I’m being overzealous…”
A bit. Yes. Nice word to describe her. Overzealous.
“The cops might think I’m imagining things, but I know what’s happening. I won’t stop. I will keep going until I can get someone who will help me.”
Odin frowned. “There are some seriously shady PIs out there.” Understatement. One she should have already realized. “You can’t just trust anyone you meet.”
“That’s why I came here. I came to the best. At least, that’s what the reporter on the news said about Trouble for Hire.” A pause. “What if I show you the perp? Will you at least come with me and check things out to see what you think of him before you turn me down?”
He thought it was a bad idea. A waste of time. Odin wasn’t going to look at some random guy and magically change his mind. This was a BS case.
“I’ll pay you to come with me. Please. Come to my house. See the evidence I have. It’s circumstantial—thus the need for the whole concrete, irrefutable evidence hunt—but it still makes for a compelling argument. Come and just consider it, will you? After that, if you still want to tell me no, then fine, do it.”
He intended to do just that. He intended to tell her that this was not going to work. He didn’t need to go to her house. He didn’t need to see her evidence or meet the neighbor. He didn’t need to do any of that stuff. There was no way this woman’s neighbor was a serial killer. It wasn’t like serial killers were thick on the ground. One of them had just been apprehended in the area, and the chances of another being on the loose in Pensacola, Florida, at the same time? Astronomically unlikely. Things like that didn’t happen.
He should give the pretty lady back her money. Tell her a polite—but firm—no and send Maisey on her way. That was absolutely what he should do. But Odin stared into those incredible eyes of hers and heard himself say, “What the hell? Nothing else is on my schedule for the night.”
Her face lit up.
Absolutely fucking gorgeous.
Odin knew that he had probably just crossed some serious PI line. He was sure there was a rule about not taking a case just because you thought the client was mega hot. But…
It was a slow evening.
And he’d never really enjoyed following all the rules. In fact, if his buddy War wasn’t currently sunning it up on a honeymoon in the Keys, War would probably tell him…some rules were made to be broken.
He was perfect.
Better than any dream she’d had. As Maisey Bright stood beside her car and waited for Odin Shaw to park his black Jeep, she tried not to jump with absolute joy.
He was big, he was muscled, and he was fierce. One look into those glittering blue eyes of his, and every drop of moisture had dried from her mouth. She’d stood in the doorway of that PI office, stared at a face that was all hard lines and planes, and she’d barely been able to catch her breath.
Odin looked tough. The sexy kind of tough that said he could take care of business without breaking a sweat. He could kick ass, solve crimes, and get the bad guys tossed in a jail cell in no time. She bet fear wasn’t part of his vocabulary. She bet that he knew a dozen ways to disable an attacker. She bet that he—
“Are we just going to stand here all night?”
He was right in front of her and she’d been daydreaming again. It was just hard not to fantasize when someone like Odin appeared. She wondered how long he’d been standing there on the sidewalk. For the sake of her pride, she really hoped it hadn’t been longer than a minute…or three.
“Our suspect lives next door.” She turned and pointed to the right—
He grabbed her hand. His hold was incredibly gentle, but she could feel the calluses on his fingers. Probably from his workout regimen. “Don’t point,” he rasped as he pulled her a little closer to him. “Not like we want to give the guy a head’s up that we’re talking about him. You never know if he’s watching.”
Wait, did Odin believe her? It sounded as if he might. Joy had her nearly shaking. Finally.
She tilted her head back and peered up at him. Next to Odin, she felt small. Delicate. The man had muscles and strength pouring from him.
Try not to drool.
“Is it just the two of you on this street?” His gaze swept the area even as he kept a hold on her hand. “I thought you said you wanted to keep the neighborhood safe.”
“Yes, well, it will be a neighborhood. But for now, we’re the only two with completed houses.” Thick woods surrounded their street. Beyond the woods, a swamp waited. She’d heard the croaks from the gators out there plenty of times.
The woods and the swamp—they were perfect for anyone who wanted to hide a body.
Like my neighbor…
Maisey suspected Clay had bought his house just for the location. It was a serial killer’s dream.
“Come inside,” she told Odin quickly. “I have a murder board set up in the guest room.”
“A murder board?”
She pulled her hand from his grip and tried to ignore the way her fingers were doing a weird little tingle. “Yes, you know, a board where I put up all of my evidence so I can keep track of all the players and events.” She hurried toward her front door. “Detectives use them quite frequently in homicide investigations.”
“Do they now.”
It didn’t exactly sound like a question. She slanted him a suspicious glance over her shoulder before hurriedly unlocking her door. The alarm began to beep, so Maisey hustled forward and shut it off.
Odin closed the door behind them. “You’ve made several mistakes so far.”
She paused on her way to the hall.
“Mistake one.” His voice was grim. “Don’t invite a strange man into your home and then let him watch you type in your alarm code. If I come back when you aren’t here, I’ll know the code. I’ll have access to you.”
Her heart lurched in her chest. But she shook her head. “You aren’t a strange man. You’re—we’re working together.” They were partners. A crime-solving team. “The cops and the press both endorsed your agency. I did research on Warren—War—before I stepped foot in that office. He’s a decorated war hero.” Hardly some dangerous criminal.
“I’m not War. You don’t know me.”
Her shoulders stiffened. His voice was deep and dark. It was a voice that seemed to rumble right through her. Maisey forced herself to turn and glance back at him. “Should I be afraid of you?”
“Yes.” An immediate reply.
Her breath left her in a startled rush. “That wasn’t the answer I expected! I hired you!” Why was he now trying to scare her? Shouldn’t he be reassuring her that she’d made a great investment?
“I warned you…” He closed in with slow, deliberate steps. “You can’t trust every PI you meet. You can’t trust anyone you meet. If I’ve learned anything from my time with War, it’s that people are never who you think they are. Evil hides in plain sight.”
He was trying to scare her. Looking all big and intimidating and keeping his expression extra fierce. But the man didn’t understand who he was dealing with. “I know evil hides everywhere. How do you think I realized what my neighbor was? I’ve learned to look beneath the surface.” She’d had to look beneath the surface. Growing up as she had, there hadn’t exactly been a lot of options for her.
If you wanted to find the truth, you had to dig it up for yourself. Often…literally.
Her spine snapped even straighter. As if that small movement would miraculously give her more height so Odin didn’t loom over her with his immense form.
“No weapon.” His lips thinned. “You’re alone with me, and you’re completely defenseless.”
She was most certainly not defenseless. “There’s a lamp two feet away. I could always grab it and slam it into your head.” If he tried anything funny with her, she’d jump up and ram that baby at him.
His gaze darted to the lamp, then back to her. “Try it,” Odin dared. “Let’s see what happens.”
Was he serious? “You want me to slam a lamp into your head?”
“I want you to realize that what you’re doing isn’t a game! You can’t just go up to some strange man and invite him in your place—”
“Oh, is that what this is about?” Relief rushed through her. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t invite strange men home. Not my style. So you don’t have to worry about me heading out to the bar scene and picking up a random guy.” She gave him a reassuring pat on the chest. “Thanks for worrying about me, though. It’s sweet.” Maisey turned away. “Now let me show you the murder—”
“I am not sweet.”
He sounded offended. Men. “Fine. You’re salty. Better?” Her steps quickened as she passed her bedroom and turned for the door on the right. She swung it open and—
Stopped. Stared in shock.
The board was…empty.
She felt Odin move in behind her. Actually felt the air shift as he drew closer. “Huh,” he said. “That your evidence? Because it’s a little…not there.”
Maisey couldn’t move. “There were pictures. Maps. Printed copies of old newspapers and victim statements.” This couldn’t be happening. “He took it all.” Anger poured through her as Maisey took three frantic steps forward.
Odin’s hand closed around her shoulder. “You’re saying someone broke in?”
“I’m saying all my evidence is gone!” Wait—maybe not all. She whirled back toward him. Shot past him and ran for her bedroom. Her laptop was in there. She had backup files on the laptop. She could show that info to Odin.
“If someone broke into your house, we should call the cops.”
The cops. They should definitely talk about the cops and contacting them. But first—her laptop.
She raced into her bedroom. Odin’s steps followed slowly behind her. Maisey headed straight for her favorite reading chair. She’d left the laptop there and it was—
Her breath shuddered in and out. “He took it all.”
She jerked her gaze off the chair. Forced herself to turn toward him. “My laptop is gone. The evidence on my murder board is gone. He took everything.”
Odin didn’t speak. Just stared at her with inscrutable blue eyes, and she realized—
Maisey stumbled back a step. “You don’t believe me?”
“Don’t believe that your next door neighbor is a killer? Or don’t believe that he broke in here—disabled your alarm, stole your murder board info and your laptop before resetting your alarm and slipping out? You’re gonna need to be specific about what you think I don’t believe.”
“All of the above,” she whispered. She had to blink because the room had just gone blurry. Blurry because she had tears of frustration and fear filling her eyes. No one believed her. Not even Odin. “I had all the material here,” she told him. Her voice trembled. So did her hands. Maisey balled them into fists. “Everything was here.” She knew what had happened. “He must have realized I was on to him. He slipped inside and took it all.” Now, without the promised information, she looked even crazier. Dammit.
“Do you have security cameras?” Odin asked her, voice expressionless.
“Any sort of tracking device on your laptop?”
She shook her head. Swiped away a tear. “I am not lying. All of this is real.”
“If you’ve had a home invasion, we should call the cops.”
“They aren’t going to believe me.” Frustration burned through her. “You’re my PI, and you don’t even believe me!”
He edged closer to her. Studied her with those bright blue eyes of his. His hand rose, and the back of his knuckles carefully skimmed her cheek.
He’s wiping away my tears.
That just made everything worse. Made her feel even more miserable because on top of everything else, hot and sexy Odin pitied her. “Don’t,” she bit out.
“Maybe you should just go,” Maisey mumbled. Because there was no way she could prove her story at this point. Everything was gone. She’d have to start over at square one. This time, I’ll have a backup for my backup. Keeping the info on her computer hadn’t been good enough.
“You need to call the cops,” Odin insisted.
He didn’t get it. “They won’t believe me.”
“Doesn’t matter if they do or not. They’ll dust for fingerprints. Maybe find some evidence. You have to report your laptop as missing.”
“No.” A rough exhalation of air. “I had a break-in here a month ago, and they didn’t find any evidence. They don’t routinely look for prints, just so you know.” That was a big misconception, one she’d had, too. “The cop who came told me this wasn’t CSI.”
His eyebrows lifted.
“Prints can’t be pulled from all surfaces. And the cop told me they usually only dust if they have someone that they can compare the prints to.” Hello, like my neighbor. But the cop hadn’t listened to that explanation from her.
“Back up. You’ve had two break-ins recently?”
She nodded. This one made two.
Odin’s jaw hardened. “We’re calling the cops. They’re checking the scene.”
“I’m your PI, remember? Isn’t that what you just said?”
She had said that, yes. Maisey sniffed.
“Then do what I tell you. Call the cops. First order of business is to get the theft on record. Then we go from there.”
Her breath caught. “Wait. Do you believe me?” Hope was struggling to flare to life again.
His gaze drifted over her face. “I’m your PI,” he said slowly, voice growling. “And we’re going to figure this shit out.”
That was not a resounding, oh, hell, yes, I believe you. But she’d still take it. Gladly take it. Without another thought, Maisey threw her body against Odin. Her arms wrapped around him—tried to, anyway. “Thank you,” she whispered.
He was tense and felt rather like a muscled wall against her.
His hand awkwardly patted her shoulder. “You’re welcome.”
He’d given her hope. Did Odin get how important that was? She had her own PI now. And together, they were going to stop the serial killer next door.