“Tell me again why you’re naked.”
Chase Durant glowered at his sometimes partner and friend. “Because, Merik, today the role of hot new neighbor is being played by yours truly.”
Merik Stone nodded. “Of course. How could I have overlooked that? Hot neighbor role. Sure. Whatever.” His bright gaze swept over Chase. “But I think I need more scene info to fully understand what’s happening here. I mean, I’m not sure I buy what’s going on. Do people normally move into new places and only wear jogging shorts while they do it? Isn’t that kind of dangerous, you know, with the heavy lifting and what not?”
A long sigh escaped Chase. “Are you trying to piss me off?”
Merik shrugged. “Maybe. I’m a little bored, and it has been a slow day.”
Damn straight it had been. Chase had started the new mission that morning, and they had moved in the temporary apartment very quickly—mostly because Chase wasn’t moving in actual belongings. Just enough for the set-up to look real. They’d made short work of the moving part, and he’d been sure that his prey would walk right into his path. It was a Saturday, after all. His target wasn’t at work, and it should have been the perfect time to make her acquaintance.
Only…nothing. Hours had passed, and nothing had happened. Chase knew his target had left the building earlier that morning, but he’d figured she’d be back in a reasonable amount of time. Ha. No such luck. So far, four hours had passed.
“Look, have you considered that she’s not coming home today?” Merik asked.
Not coming back? “She didn’t take anything with her when she left. She was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes.” Yes, he’d been watching. Spying.
His head swiveled toward the only other apartment on the floor. They were on the fourth floor—the top floor—of the building. The place was located on the outskirts of Marietta, Georgia, and the old building had been converted and updated just a few years before. Exposed bricks and gleaming chunks of wood were everywhere, and Chase had the uncomfortable feeling that he might just be in one of those HGTV episodes because it seemed like the designer of the building had checked off every single box—
“If she’s not coming home anytime soon, you could put your shirt back on,” Merik offered.
Chase waved toward his abs. “I work hard for these.”
“Moneymakers, that’s what they are,” Chase added, voice serious.
“Are you sure?” Merik appeared doubtful. “I’m not so—”
“They mean I’m strong enough to get the job done, and the ladies like them. Since my target is one lady in particular, I figure I’d start with my best asset and work from there.”
“Okay.” Merik crossed his arms over his chest. When he flexed, the long dragon tattoo on his left arm seemed to slither. “Let me see if I now understand this whole set-up correctly. Your strategy on this case is to use your abs to woo your prey?”
“The abs are step one—an ice-breaker, if you will.” Chase hadn’t been kidding when he said he was playing the hot new neighbor role. When he’d been considering undercover personas for this case, it had seemed the easiest one to use. His target was the single woman on the floor—the woman who had not yet returned for their meet and greet. He had to get close to her. Had to sneak past her guard.
Then he had to learn every single secret that she possessed.
Sure, sure, normally, his job was to protect. At Wilde, the protection and security firm that he’d been employed at for quite a while now, they often took jobs where danger was just part of the game. They protected all sorts of clients—even royalty and rock stars—but they also took jobs that were under the radar. As in, way under the radar. Jobs that the government farmed out to them.
Those kinds of jobs were often Chase’s favorites. Undercover missions had always been his specialty.
And Merik knew that—so why was his buddy giving him grief?
“I’m dying to hear step two.” Merik nodded. “Do not leave me in suspense.”
The man must be helluva bored. “Fine, if you must know—”
“I must,” he cut in.
The elevator dinged.
Chase tensed. “Showtime.” His lady had to be arriving. The whole reason he’d been killing time in that hallway with the last box of moving items on the floor between him and Merik? He’d wanted to be in the right place to run into his target.
He sucked in a breath. Abs at the ready.
The elevator doors opened.
He saw her.
Her head was tilted down so that her loose, red curls fell forward. She stepped out of the elevator, moving with a stride that was slow and almost distracted. She still wore her tennis shoes, the t-shirt, and the shorts, and he couldn’t help but notice the woman had killer legs. Long, toned.
Chase moved a bit to the left. It was a deliberate side-step because it would put him in her path.
She didn’t notice him.
His target was carrying a book, she was reading it as she walked, and she didn’t even glance up as she made her way down the hallway and to her apartment.
Huh. That was…unexpected.
She was almost on top of him. The scent of vanilla teased his nose. He loved that scent. Reminded him of when he’d been a kid and his dad would take him to the local ice cream shop. He’d always ordered vanilla. It was his favorite.
She still hadn’t looked up. Obviously, situational awareness wasn’t high on her list of priorities. Strange, considering what he’d been told about her.
Maybe she’s just pretending not to notice me.
Either way, he had to do something before she barreled straight into him. “Ahem.”
She jumped, gasped, and her book flew from her hands to crash into the floor. Her eyes—a deep, dark green—widened as she stared at him. Her unpainted lips—bow-shaped and sexy—parted in a startled O-shape.
Chase gave her what he liked to think of as his winning smile. “Hi, there, neighbor.”
She blinked. Frowned. Then bent and scooped up her book.
He craned to get a glance at the title of the novel. When he recognized the name of the author, his smile stretched a little more.
“I’m sorry.” She gave a brisk shake of her head. “I think I was lost in a book.”
“It happens.” Dammit. She was even prettier than he’d expected. Creamy skin. Little button of a nose. And those eyes. Sexy as fuck.
Not that he was supposed to find her sexy.
She was the villain, after all. His job was to bring her down.
Red blossomed on her cheeks.
His head cocked to the right. She was blushing. Lots of reactions could be faked in this world. He’d seen some world-class actors in his time, but blushing? No, you couldn’t fake that. It was an instinctive, physical response.
Her gaze darted over him.
Right. The abs. They would—
Her stare shifted over to Merik as he stood near their last moving box. “Nice tat,” she told him with a quick smile.
What? She liked tats? If so, Chase would be happy to show her his. Except, well, it was in a rather hard-to-find spot on his—
Merik grinned back at her. “Thanks.”
“Are you moving in, too?” Her voice was all warm and welcoming—as she spoke to Merik.
This shit could not be happening. “No.” Chase realized his own voice sounded a bit too hard when her stare swung back to him. He cleared his throat. “My buddy was just helping me to move in.” Now he extended his hand to her. “Hi, I’m Chase Durant.”
She eyed his hand for a moment. Nibbled on her lower lip. Then slowly, her right hand extended toward his. Her left still gripped her book.
He didn’t move. Chase was being patient and letting her take her time. This was all part of his strategy. She’d be coming to him, and he would be—
Her fingers touched his. A surge of heat whipped up along Chase’s hand and flew through his entire body.
Her eyes flared, and he knew she’d felt the same surge.
An awareness. An intensity. A killer sexual attraction.
His hand closed over hers. “What’s your name?” Her skin was so freaking soft. Meanwhile, he had calluses to hell and back on his hands, but they came from his workout regimen. Once a SEAL, always a—
“Vivian. Vivian Wayne.” She tugged against his hold.
He immediately let her go. “Nice to meet you, Vivian.” He liked the name. It was different. Sexy. So is she. He motioned toward his silent partner. “That’s Merik.”
Merik gave her a little salute.
She inclined her head—
“He’ll have to leave soon.” Chase beamed at his buddy. “Man, I sure do appreciate your help today, but I know you need to get back to your wife.”
Merik’s lips twitched. He didn’t have a wife. Or a serious girlfriend. Dude was a player to his soul. Chase kept warning him about that, but, so far, Merik hadn’t listened to him. I offer good life advice. Why don’t people listen to me more often?
“And you need to get back to your new place,” Vivian said. Her voice was low, not quite husky, but definitely sensual. “I won’t keep you.”
He wanted her to keep him. That was the whole point.
She stepped around him. Made her way to the apartment on the other end of the hallway.
“I’m new in town,” Chase called after her. “Maybe later you can point me in the direction of some good restaurants?”
She stopped. He saw her shoulders stiffen.
Hell. Had that question sounded as desperate as it felt?
Vivian looked over her shoulder at him. She frowned, making a faint furrow appear between her eyebrows.
Chase kept his winning smile in place.
Come on, come on…
“I’ll be happy to help,” she replied. She didn’t sound particularly happy, though.
“And I’m happy to help you, too,” he told her quickly. “That’s what neighbors are for, right? So if you should need me for anything, just remember, from here on out, I’ll be right next door.”
She seemed to absorb that. Her green gaze slid from him to his apartment door. “I’ll remember.”
A few moments later, she was inside her apartment. The door closed almost soundlessly behind her.
He stood there a moment, just staring down the hallway.
“Did that go according to plan?” Merik sidled closer. “I am genuinely curious. When you came up with this set-up, did you secretly intend for her to compliment my tat, ignore your abs, and shut the door in your face?”
“She didn’t shut the door in my face.” Obviously. “I’m a good fifteen feet away from her door.”
Merik laughed and slapped a hand on Chase’s shoulder. “Tell me you have another plan.”
He had lots of plans. Always did. And Merik damn well knew that. Actually, Merik already knew exactly what the next step would be because they’d had to discuss it and plan for that step before moving into the building.
Unfortunately, the next step would involve Chase having to play dirty. Shouldn’t have been a problem. He’d played dirty on plenty of cases. In fact, he was very, very good at playing dirty but…
It meant nothing. He was sure that, under the right circumstances, even serial killers could blush. Not that Vivian Wayne was a serial killer. No, in fact, he didn’t believe that she’d killed anyone. At least, not directly.
But she was dangerous. Very, very dangerous. And his job was to stop her. By any means necessary.
Playing dirty? Yeah, it was almost time.
So why did the idea of what he was about to do…why did the idea of it make him feel like crap?
Focus. Be friendly. Smile.
Vivian rolled back her shoulders, lifted her chin, and rapped her left hand against the closed apartment door.
Then she shifted her stance and went back to carefully cradling the covered dish in front of her.
She could hear the pad of footsteps. And then—
The door swung open.
He stood there. The new neighbor. The guy with the dark blond hair, the rough stubble of beard on his hard jaw, and the most amazing golden eyes that she’d ever seen. Gold. When she’d first looked up and into his eyes, the hallway had seemed to narrow. Her heart had thudded hard in her chest, she’d trembled, and when they’d touched, when his strong, warm fingers had curled around hers, she’d thought—
Oh, so this is what everyone is always talking about.
She blinked. Oh, God. Had she just been staring at him? He’d put on a t-shirt. A white t-shirt that stretched over his powerful chest and all of those wonderfully sculpted muscles.
Sexy guy, dead ahead. In her world, sexy men didn’t just fall out of the sky and into her path. If only.
“Is everything all right?”
No, things were not all right. She was being an awkward mess, and she needed to take control of the situation, ASAP. He was her neighbor, and she could be friendly, dang it. Or, she could try. “I baked this.” Vivian shoved the welcome gift toward him.
One eyebrow quirked. “Thank…you?”
Chase made it sound like a question. Probably because she was being weird. She knew she was being weird. Weird was her thing. Once upon a time, she’d tried to fit in with everyone else, but that just hadn’t worked so well for her. She didn’t usually waste time with polite chitchat. Why be polite when you could be real? Besides, when people were being polite, they were often lying. White lies, sure, but they weren’t saying what they really meant.
She hated lies.
Mostly because of her family.
Do not go there right now. She had enough to handle without a painful walk down memory lane.
Her new neighbor was staring at her. She hadn’t responded to him. She had to correct that situation. “They may not be good. It’s a new recipe.”
“Possibly not good.” Chase’s other eyebrow rose. He lifted the top of the container to take a peek inside, then he asked, “So you brought me bad baked goods?” His attention shifted back to her. “Are you welcoming me or trying to scare me away?”
Oh, no. She felt heat burn her cheeks.
His eyes widened. “You’re doing it again.”
“Of all the animals in the world, only humans blush.”
“Huh.” Chase seemed to consider her statement. “Suppose it makes sense.”
“It’s the nervous system doing it. The system sends a quick message to your facial muscles. The message tells them to relax, and when the facial muscles do relax, we have small veins that dilate in our skin. That dilation then makes your cheeks flush as the blood starts to—” Vivian stopped because he was frowning at her. She cleared her throat then plodded on, “People with fair skin have more apparent blushes. My mom was Scottish so…” She finally let her words trail away. Oh, no. She’d done her thing again. One of her coping mechanisms. When she was nervous, she fact-shared. She had all these random facts in her head—mostly because she loved to read everything—and when she was stressed, some of the facts…escaped.
“You know a lot about blushing,” Chase noted.
“Not really. I’m just good at memorizing random things.” She had to get this situation back on track. She pointed to her gift. “Those are brownies.”
“I thought they might be.” His eyes gleamed.
Was he teasing her? “I think they are passably tasty, but you might have a different opinion. I just wanted to warn you so that you wouldn’t be disappointed.”
“I am not even a little disappointed.” He wasn’t looking at the brownies. He was looking at her. “So this is your way of welcoming me to the building?”
“Yes. I, um, didn’t think I was being overly neighborly before, so I was trying again.” Her hands twisted in front of her. “Am I doing better?”
His gaze seemed to soften on her. “You are doing a stellar job.”
Warmth bloomed inside of her even as a wide smile curled her lips. “Thank you.”
Chase gave two fast blinks, then his gaze sharpened on her.
“Well, I’m sure you need to get back to your unpacking, and I have to run to the grocery store so…” She backed up. Stopped. “I hope we can be friends.”
A slow nod. “I’d like that.”
“Me, too.” It would be nice having a friend in the building. She hadn’t exactly made a ton of friends since moving to Marietta. The new job kept her busy and talking to strangers had always been hard for her.
Other people could strike up conversations so easily, but, not her. Probably because of that whole polite chitchat thing.
Vivian turned and headed for the elevator.
“I’ll have to repay you.”
Her steps faltered.
“Maybe you can tell me about a good restaurant, and I can take you there as a thank you.”
She swung toward him. Had he just asked her out? Surely not.
“It would be a neighborly thing to do, wouldn’t it?” Chase continued. “Taking you out for a thank you meal?”
Oh. Her shoulders relaxed. He wasn’t talking about a date. He was just being nice. “There’s a really good Asian restaurant on the corner. Maybe we can go there when you’re settled in.”
He smiled. “It’s a date.”
Her heart lurched. Wait, was it a date? But she didn’t ask. That would have been way awkward, and she’d already been awkward enough, thank you very much. She hurried into the elevator. Hit the button for the ground floor. Turned around and watched as the doors began to close—
She could see Chase through the space between the closing doors. He was still in the hallway. He was staring after her, and for just a moment, his handsome face looked tense and hard and—
Then he smiled. In a flash, he went back to looking all charming. He even lifted a hand to wave good-bye to her.
The doors closed.
“These are freaking delicious.”
“Stop eating my damn brownies,” Chase growled.
Merik popped another chunk into his mouth. “Why? There are plenty here.”
“Because she made them for me.” He hadn’t even gotten to taste one yet. Chase cut a big piece and popped it into his mouth just to see how they— “Fuck me.”
“No, man, I’m good, but thanks.”
Chase shot a dirty look at his partner. Then he took another brownie. It melted on his tongue. Passably tasty, his ass. It was like having heaven in his mouth.
Vivian Wayne was dangerous. Far more dangerous than he’d expected. He’d thought that he could waltz into her life, charm her, and seduce her into telling him what he needed, but…no. “I see what she’s doing.” He ate another brownie. Resisted the urge to moan.
Merik reached for more, too.
Chase bared his teeth at him and snatched the brownies away. “Go make your own.”
“That shit is not cool. Friends share with friends.”
No, they didn’t. Chase put the brownies in his kitchen.
Merik followed him. “Uh, want to catch me up to speed? Because I feel behind. What—exactly—is your prey doing?”
“She is trying to seduce me.”
“I wasn’t making a damn joke. Isn’t it obvious? First she plays hard to get…”
“I didn’t see her playing hard to get. I saw her ignoring you when you were stripped down in the hallway.”
“Then she comes sashaying over here, being all charming and cute with her brownies. Tousled hair, casual clothes, sexy eyes.”
“Sashaying? Sexy eyes?” Merik peered longingly at the brownies. “I missed that part because I was inside moving around your boxes.”
“The brownies were her genius move. She was trying to act all modest about them when she knew they were awesome. She knew I’d take a bite and want more.” He could still see her in his mind. Standing in his doorway. Blushing. Telling him about the nervous system and facial muscles as she rocked onto the balls of her feet and her vanilla scent wrapped around him.
“So she’s seducing you with brownies. Check.”
“She’s diabolical.” Chase took one more bite. A small one. “But she’s not going to fool me.”
“Of course not. We both know you’re the most diabolical bastard in the world.” A pause, then, “So…are you ready to break into her place? Because I thought that was our step two. You know, seeing as how we were going over the details until your diabolical neighbor knocked on the door.”
Chase stepped away from the brownies. “I’m not breaking in. That’s illegal.”
“Uh, huh. Right.”
“I’m just going to make it look as if someone broke in.”
“Like that’s not illegal, too?” When Chase cut him a glare, Merik laughed. “I’m messing with you. I know there’s a Boy Scout buried deep inside of you, and I like to see how far I can push before he gets all twitchy.”
“You are not funny.” He exhaled. “Look, just go outside the building and make sure she doesn’t return before I’m done.” Her trip to the store was perfect timing for him. “I’ll set the stage with the fake break-in.” Such an asshole move. But one that was unavoidable. “When I’m done, you can vanish, and then…”
“Then you’ll play hero. I know how this goes. You’ll be there when she runs to you for help, and you’ll be one step closer to getting her to trust you.”
Yeah, that was the idea.
Merik turned and headed for the door. “She seems nice.”
Chase stiffened. “I’ve met plenty of nice criminals. Some guys still had smiles on their faces right before they tried to put bullets in me.”
Merik glanced back. “Guess I’m not as jaded as you yet.”
“Give it time. You’ll get there.”
“Yeah, that’s what worries me.” Merik tossed him a wave. “Keep your phone on you. When she comes back, I’ll text you.”
Merik left, and Chase got his tools ready. It was a simple matter to reach Vivian’s door and pry open the lock. If he’d really wanted to break in, he could have done so without leaving a trace behind. But the point wasn’t to get inside without her knowing. The point was for her to realize that someone had broken into her place.
And for her to run to me for help.
He got the door open, and an alarm didn’t so much as beep. He frowned into the darkness of her apartment. Seriously? No alarm? What was she thinking?
Even the villain could get robbed.
Shaking his head, he stepped back. He made sure to leave her door slightly ajar. Then he glanced down the hallway. There was a very, very small—almost miniscule—camera positioned to the upper left of the elevator. A camera that had arrived courtesy of his boss at Wilde. When it came to tech, Eric Wilde was the best. He’d had the camera installed there—and one on the bottom floor—so that Chase would be able to keep track of everyone who came to visit Vivian. Basically, the better for him to keep track of all the players in the game.
Chase strode back to his new apartment. He locked the door and booted up his laptop. In moments, he’d pulled up the security feeds from those two cameras. Now, it would all be just a matter of waiting until Vivian came racing to his door.
He was so ready to play hero.
And within thirty minutes, he got the text from Merik…
Evil Queen is heading back.
Chase frowned. Evil Queen? Since when were they going with that codename?
He glanced back at the security footage and saw Vivian heading through the building’s lobby. She had a shopping bag cradled in her hands as she disappeared into the elevator.
He counted silently as he waited for the elevator to rise up to the fourth floor.
She was picked up on the second camera when she walked out of the elevator.
There you are. Chase smiled as he leaned forward. Yes, sure, he felt like a dick for staging the scene, but the woman was a criminal. She had to be stopped. He wouldn’t fall for her tricks.
She’d fall for his. She’d see that open door and come running. She would—
She’d stopped at her apartment door. He saw the grocery bag drop from her hands. Then her fingers fluttered around the broken lock.
Yep, intruder alert. She turned her head, looking back down the hallway.
Chase tensed. Come to me. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Remember, I said I was here if you need me. You can come to me anytime and you can—
She pushed open her apartment door. Walked inside.
What. The. Hell?
Well, shit. As far as she knew, an intruder could have been in her place, and she’d just waltzed right inside to confront him.
So much for Chase’s big, save-the-day scene. Time for him to improvise. He quickly locked his laptop in a desk drawer. Chase grabbed the empty container from beside him—the brownies had truly been awesome, so awesome that he’d eaten them all while he waited for her to return—and he bounded out of the apartment. He rushed down the hallway, frowning when he saw that two apples had rolled out of Vivian’s abandoned grocery bag.
Evil Queen…Okay, fine, maybe the codename would fit her.
Her door was still open. He had to play this scene just right. “Vivian?” He raised his voice and pushed against the door. “Vivian, I was bringing back your brownie container and—” Chase let surprise ring in his voice. “Oh, no, did someone break your lock? Vivian?” He charged inside, very hero-like.
And then he immediately had to duck as Vivian came swinging at him with a baseball bat.
The bat thudded into the wall over Chase’s head. Vivian’s jaw dropped as she realized how close she’d come to hitting her new neighbor. “I’m so sorry!” She yanked the bat back. “I didn’t mean to—”
His left hand flew up and closed around the upper part of the bat. “Easy, slugger.”
Her breath heaved in and out. Her grip on the bat tightened. “Someone broke my lock.”
“I saw that.”
Chase held her brownie dish in one hand and his other was still gripping the bat.
“I thought the intruder might still be here, so I came inside,” Vivian rushed to add.
“You did what?” He yanked on the bat, and, since she didn’t let go of her weapon, his move had the effect of hauling her closer to him. So close that their faces wound up only inches apart.
“I thought he might still be here,” she said even though Vivian was sure she’d been clear before. “So I—”
“Grabbed a baseball bat and went after him?”
Yes. Exactly. She nodded.
His eyes widened. “You should have come to me!”
That made no sense. “Why would I have done that?”
“Why? Why?” A muscle jerked along his jaw. “Because he could’ve had a gun!”
“Then I would have been putting you in danger. I couldn’t do that to my new neighbor.”
His eyes closed. Vivian thought he whispered, “Fuck me,” but she couldn’t be sure.
He tugged on the bat again. This time, she let it go, and Chase propped it up against the nearby wall. Then he placed the brownie dish on the floor before he glanced around her apartment.
She followed his stare. “I don’t think he’s here. I searched through the rooms, but I didn’t see—ah!” Her words ended in a startled cry because he’d just picked her up—scooped her into his arms as if that were a normal thing. It wasn’t. “What are you doing?”
“Carrying you to safety.”
“I am safe!”
“No, but you will be very soon.” He’d taken her out of her apartment and was double-timing it down the hallway. Chase cradled her against his chest and moved wicked fast.
In the next instant—or so it seemed to her—they were inside his apartment. He put her onto her feet, nodded briskly, and said, “I’ll check out your place. Stay here.”
“Absolutely not.” Why was he ordering her about? What was up with that? “Unless you’re a cop or something, you’re not supposed to be racing into danger. And I don’t know why you’re telling me what to do, but that needs to stop and—is that a gun?”
“Yes, it is. And I am an ‘or something.’”
She frowned at him. “What?” He’d taken the gun out of a desk drawer, and he looked all dangerous and rough standing there as he held the weapon with a casualness that sent a shiver skating down her spine.
“I fall into your ‘or something’ category. Former SEAL, at your service. Though don’t go telling that to the world because I really like to keep that particular part of my past on the down low.”
She kept frowning.
“Real SEALs don’t have to shout it to the world, and I normally don’t, but I’m trying to reassure you that I can handle this situation so…” He shrugged. “Just so you get the full disclosure bit from me, protection is my business. I work for a security company. Please consider this your lucky day. I’ll check out your place—free of charge—and be back in a flash.” His golden eyes pinned her. “While I’m gone, please, stay here. I want you to be safe, and I also need to make sure no one is inside your home. Lock the door behind me, and I’ll be back before you know it.”
She wasn’t used to someone helping her this way. Or…any way. “Thank you.”
He gave her a quick smile, then was gone. She fumbled and locked the door and stood there with her heart drumming entirely too fast in her chest.
Someone broke in. When she’d peered around her home, Vivian hadn’t seen anything out of place. But…
She was scared. The fact that someone had gotten into her apartment unnerved her. The minutes seemed to tick past ever so slowly as she stood there. Her whole body was tight and nerves had her stomach twisting into knots. Maybe she should go after Chase. What if he was hurt? Even SEALs could be hurt. Anyone could be hurt.
When she heard the scrape of a key in the lock, her body jolted. The door swung open, and Chase filled the doorway.
“Your place was clear. No one was inside. I didn’t see anything disturbed. Everything seemed perfectly in order. Like, seriously in order.”
So, ah, maybe she liked for things to be organized. Was that a crime?
Chase shut the door and stalked back toward his desk. He put the gun inside. Seemed to consider the situation before he mused, “Maybe he didn’t go in. Hell, maybe he just picked the lock, and then something scared him off.” He glanced over at her. “I could have scared him off. While you were at the store, I went down to my car, and then headed back up here with one more box. I came via the elevator. Maybe he heard me and rushed out by taking the stairs—”
“Or maybe you did it.”
His amazing eyes widened. Then narrowed. “Say again?” He shut the desk drawer. Headed toward her with slow, almost predatory steps.
Vivian lifted her chin, straightened her spine, and refused to be intimidated. “I said that maybe you broke into my place. You’re the variable.”
Chase’s head tilted to the right. “Explain.”
“A variable is an element that can change or—”
“I know what a variable is,” he growled. “Why am I your variable?”
Oh, right. “Because you’re new. The only new person in the building. Because I’ve been here for over three months and nothing like this has happened before, but on the day you move in, right after I clearly tell you that I am leaving so my home will be empty…” Her mistake. She wouldn’t be doing that again. “Right after that, someone broke into my apartment.”
“You’re right. Guilty.” Chase nodded. “You got me. I broke into your place.”
Now she squinted at him. “Are you being funny? Or are you confessing to the crime?”
“Why would I break into your place?”
He hadn’t answered her. But she’d answer him. “Maybe you’re crazy. Maybe you like terrorizing women. Maybe you collect underwear.”
“What?” His jaw kind of hung open.
“Could be any number of reasons. You had the opportunity. You had the proximity. Like I said, you are my—”
“Variable, yes, I heard you the first time.” He blew out a breath. “Look, someone just tried to get in your place. Do you want to call the cops?”
That twisting in her stomach got worse. Way worse.
“Because if you want to call them, we should do it right now.” Chase nodded. “Get them down here so their crime techs can do their thing.”
The police. “I want to see if anything was taken.”
“Before you call the police?”
She wasn’t sure that she was calling the police. She also wasn’t so sure that she wanted to rule Chase out as a suspect. “I need some proof that you are who you say that you are.”
He threw his hands into the air. “What does that even mean?”
“You told me you worked for a security company—”
He hauled a wallet from his back pocket. Dug out a white business card. Handed it to her. Their fingers brushed.
That weird lick of heat hit her again. The same heat that had surged through her the first time they’d touched. She’d even felt it when he did his crazy carry routine on her. When he’d scooped her into his arms, the heat had burned through her. Vivian cleared her throat. “I need you to stop that.”
Both brows rose. “Stop what?”
“Making me tingle. I can’t deal with that right now.” She frowned down at the card. “What’s a Wilde?”
“Eric Wilde is my boss. He owns a security and protection business. It’s pretty big, you might have heard about it—”
“Biggest on the East Coast.” He coughed when she just stared at him. “You haven’t heard about it. Got it. Well, you can call Eric. He’ll vouch for me.”
“But I don’t know him. He could lie to me.” She peeked at the card once more, rubbed her fingers over the embossed text, then glanced up. She found Chase staring at her, rather bemusedly. “What?” Vivian asked.
“How do I make you tingle? I almost missed that part.”
Her cheeks burned.
“That is fucking adorable. God, I love it when your cheeks go pink.”
“Kittens are adorable. If you like adorable things, you should get one of those.”
A nod. “I will keep that in mind.” He sucked in his cheeks a moment, as if he were trying not to laugh.
This was hardly a humorous situation. And she wasn’t adorable. That was insulting. Especially because when she looked at Chase, she thought…
You’re not adorable. You’re sexy. You’re gorgeous. Stupid hot. And I need to get out of here. “I have to see if anything was taken. Thanks, um, for your help.” She brushed around him.
“That’s it? You’re just going to race back in there? What about calling the cops?”
Her shoulders stiffened. “If nothing is taken, there won’t be much point in contacting them. The cops have plenty of other cases to keep them busy and, given that fact, a broken lock would hardly be a big priority for them.”
“At least let me come with you.”
She looked back at him. “Why?”
“Uh, for moral support?”
“What makes you think I need that?”
Chase shifted his stance. “Maybe I need it. I just moved into a new building, there was a break-in—or an attempted break-in—on my first day. My nerves are shot. Not being alone is helpful for me right now.”
She spun to fully face him. Her hands flew to her hips. “Lies waste time.”
“Yes. So just tell me what you mean from here on out and we can be friends.”
He stepped toward her. “It’s that easy with you? I just tell you the truth, and you’ll be my friend?”
Her hand rose and trailed over the faint scar that cut through her left eyebrow. Her fingers trembled a bit as she said, “Having a good group of friends can help increase your lifespan, it decreases stress levels, and those friendships can also help to keep you mentally aware due to the fact that the risk of dementia decreases when you have—”
He held up one hand. “You spout facts when you’re nervous.”
Her lips pressed together. Yes, yes, she did. Her hand fell away from her eyebrow because he was staring at it—no, at her scar.
“I would like to be your friend,” Chase continued carefully. His voice was almost tender.
Chase’s tenderness made her feel funny on the inside.
“And as a friend, I don’t want you to be nervous. So let me backtrack and try this again.” He paused. “Please let me come with you as you check to make sure that nothing was stolen from your place.” He extended his hand toward her. “And, I will try very hard not to waste your time with lies.”
She stared at his hand. Then nodded. “I like that deal.” Her fingers curled around his. “Thank you, new friend.”
His golden eyes gleamed.
“I appreciate you installing the new lock.”
It’s the least I could do, considering I’m the prick who broke the old one. Chase glanced up as he finished tightening the screw on Vivian’s new lock. He pasted a smile on his face. “That’s what friends are for, right?”
No, friends aren’t supposed to break your lock. They’re not supposed to terrify you. They aren’t supposed to use you.
A quick smile lit up her face. It was the first time she’d smiled since the break-in.
God, I am such a dick.
“Please tell Merik again how much I appreciate him stopping by the hardware store and rushing that lock over to us.”
It was no trouble. He had the lock ready to go.
“Nothing was taken.” She nodded. “So that’s great. The intruder must have been scared off by someone—maybe by you—you know, like you told me earlier.”
I think there is a reserved place in hell waiting for me. One that’s extra hot. “Yes, that’s probably what happened.” Chase rose to his feet and gripped the screwdriver in one hand. “You need a security system.”
Her eyelids flickered. “Yes. I should call around and get quotes—”
“I have connections. I can have one installed for you first thing in the morning.”
“Because you work for a security company.” Her lips pressed together, then she confessed, “While you were installing the new lock, I researched you online.”
“I mean, I researched your company. Very well known. Lots of big clients. Celebrities and stuff.” Her head tilted. “Have you ever protected someone famous?”
“What was it like?” Mild curiosity showed on her pretty face.
“The guy was a total ass.” And one of the biggest names in Hollywood. “So it was basically a shit show.”
Laughter sputtered from her. Rich, warm laughter. Chase found himself leaning closer to Vivian because he liked the sweet sound of her laughter so much.
“You’re not impressed by famous people?” Vivian wanted to know.
Impressed? “Hell, no.”
Her laughter faded. “I can’t afford you.”
“I can give you the friends and family discount. Trust me, you can afford our services.” Especially since those services…shit, they were designed so that Wilde could keep an eye on her.
Her smile came and went again. It was truly a gorgeous smile, one that made her green eyes light up. “Thank you.”
“Don’t need to thank me.” Because when you do, your gratitude makes me feel worse.
“I do, I have to thank you. I need to—”
“You can thank me by going out to dinner with me. Say, tomorrow night?”
Her gaze skittered away from his.
“I promise, I won’t bite,” he added gently. “It can just be a friendly meal.” He was adjusting his strategy because Vivian was far too cautious. He had to play this game very carefully. He needed to be the nice guy for her. “We can even go to that Asian restaurant that you mentioned. I’ll have my guys come by and set up your security in the morning, and then we’ll hit dinner in the evening.”
She shook her head.
Hell, denied. He would have to come up with a different—
“I can cook.”
He thought of her to-die-for brownies. Oh, hell yes, you can.
“How about you come over here tomorrow night?” Vivian offered. “I’ll cook dinner for us.”
Chase held her stare. “I would like that.”
“So would I.” Vivian seemed surprised even as she said the words.
Chase had to laugh. “That’s the thing about me. Before you know it, you’ll be falling for my charm.”
“I’ll have to watch out for that,” she replied seriously. Then she caught Chase off guard by giving a saucy wink. “But you should be careful, too. Before you know it, you might be falling for me.”
“Huh.” He stared at her.
She waited. And waited a little more.
Chase sucked in a breath. “Right. So, you gonna be okay here tonight? Because you’re welcome to sleep with me.”
Her eyes widened. “Excuse me?”
“Stay with me. Stay with me. You are welcome to stay with me.” That was what he’d meant to say. The words had come out wrong. “You can take the bedroom. I’ll take the couch.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I’ll be fine here. I have a brand-new lock, after all.” She took a tentative step toward him. “You should get back to your place. When I was inside, I noticed that you had a lot of boxes left to unpack.”
She was kicking him out. Understood. “If you need me, I’m right down the hall.” He leaned a wee bit closer to her. His nostrils flared. She smelled so fucking delicious. “I love vanilla ice cream.”
“I like chocolate. But why are we talking about this?”
His lips curved. “Because you smell like vanilla ice cream. It’s my favorite scent.”
“Oh, that’s, um, body lotion. Vanilla bean.”
His gaze slid over her face. Lingered on her mouth.
“You look like you want to kiss me,” Vivian whispered.
She was direct. Maybe he should try being just as direct with her. “That’s because I do.”
The softest of gasps escaped her lips. “I thought you wanted to be friends.”
“I want to be whatever you’d like me to be.” His gaze lifted. Held hers. “If it’s just friends, then I’ll take that. But you said lies were a waste of time, so I figured that before I left, I’d tell you some truths.”
“Go right ahead.” Her voice had gone breathless. Sexy.
“If you want to only be friends, count me in. I could always use another friend. You can never have too many in this world. But, if you want more than friendship, if you want to see what happens when my mouth touches yours…count me in. I can be as much or as little as you want me to be. You decide.”
She searched his gaze. “You just met me.”
“And I already like you.” Chase had to lighten the tension between them. He knew he was coming on too strong. Be the nice guy. No pressure. “I mean, how could I not like a woman who has such a killer swing? You should’ve gone pro.”
Her gaze darted to the baseball bat that rested against the wall. Laughter spilled from her.
The sound warmed him. Chase felt like he’d just won some kind of freaking prize.
What is up with that?
“I should go. Lots of boxes.” He nodded, stepped back, but had to look at her lips once more. Just once…
I want her mouth beneath mine. I want to see how she tastes. I want to make her moan for me.
Her mouth was going to haunt his dreams.
“Good night, Chase. Thanks for all of your help. And…I’m glad you’re in the building.” She offered her hand to him.
He took it. This time, he was prepared for the surge of awareness—of pure heat—that flew through his whole body.
“Do you feel that?” Her voice trembled. “It’s more than a tingle this time.”
“I feel it.” His voice had roughened. He wanted to pull her forward. Wanted to put his mouth on hers. To taste her.
Instead, he let her go. “Have a good night. If you need me, you know where I am.” With that, he strode toward his place, but Chase could feel her gaze on him. He looked back and found Vivian still standing in her doorway. Her head was tilted and her stare was sharp and focused on him.
Tension slid through Chase. Was she suspecting him? Was she figuring him out? Was she—
Her fingers lifted in a wave before Vivian retreated into her apartment and shut the door.
His breath left him in a rush. Damn. For a moment back there, he’d gotten off mission. He’d wanted her mouth on his so badly. Chase hurried into his place. Flipped the lock and—
“Friends leave brownies for friends,” Merik informed him with a glower. His hands were flattened on the kitchen counter, and the dragon tattoo looked ready to breathe fire.
He hadn’t realized Merik had lingered after dropping off the new lock. “You used your key.”
“I totally used my key. I was waiting for you to come and check in with your current partner, but I guess things got all intense and involved over there.” He tapped his fingers on the counter. “Is the Evil Queen on her way to ruin?”
“Don’t call her that,” Chase snapped.
Merik blinked. “My mistake. Jeez, someone needs to chill out.”
“I am chill. The most chill.”
“Whatever you say. So…is the target—the one suspected of selling classified intel, the one who could be potentially risking the lives of dozens of good men and women—is she on her way to ruin?”
Chase winced as he made his way to the fridge. He yanked out a bottle of water and took a long gulp. “She doesn’t seem bad.”
“Oh, shit.” Merik had turned to follow Chase’s movements. Merik’s eyes squeezed closed. “She’s getting to you. It’s day one, and she’s sliding under your skin already.” His eyes opened. He glared.
Chase took another swig of water. “No, she’s not.” Yes, she is. “I feel bad, okay? I broke the woman’s lock. Scared the hell out of her.”
“Because you’re a jerk.”
He put down the water bottle. “No, please, don’t pull your punches.”
“I’m not. I don’t ever. You just pulled a dick move by sabotaging the lock, but it needed to be done. We both know it. Sometimes, the end justifies the means.”
“I hate that saying.” With a deep, burning passion. “And I still feel like shit. She was upset, man. If she’s innocent, then I feel like—”
“If she’s innocent? If? Did you just use the word if?”
He had, yes.
Merik’s glare turned into a gape. “She’s not innocent! You read the evidence! I read the evidence! She is stealing secrets. No, correction, she stole secrets. And we have to find and recover the intel before she passes the data off to the bad guys who are out there. There is no if with this woman.” He stalked toward Chase. “You and I both got our orders from Eric. Uncle Sam pulled us in because our particular brand of crazy was needed on this case.”
“Things feel fucking crazy about now.” He felt crazy. Her laugh had just sounded so—
“Are you thinking with your dick or your head?”
“Watch it.” Chase wasn’t in the mood to play.
“She’s sexy, I’ll give you that. I always had a little thing for redheads so I get the attraction.”
Chase’s hands fisted.
“But she is dangerous,” Merik added grimly. “The point was for you to play her, not the other way around.”
“I know what I’m doing.” He did. “It’s just…dammit! She seems innocent.” The way she spouted off her facts when she was nervous—he’d picked up on that tell right away. The way she blushed. The way she rubbed the faint scar over her eyebrow when she— “How’d she get that scar?”
Merik waved his hand in front of Chase. “Focus.”
He was focused. He’d read the background file on Vivian. Read it over and over. There had been no mention of a scar over her left eyebrow. It was white, faded, so she must have gotten it long ago. But how? He didn’t like the idea of her being hurt.
Shit. Merik is right. I need to focus.
“Chase, buddy, pain in my ass…this is what I’m hearing…You’re saying she’s all innocence and light.”
Yes, he’d basically said that. “I left out the light part. Just mentioned more that she could be innocent. It’s an instinct, all right? My instincts say she’s not some—some Evil Queen.”
“Let’s back up. Reassess. Did she do anything tonight to raise red flags with you?”
Chase glanced away.
Merik whistled. “She did. Okay. What was it? Tell me.”
“She didn’t want to call the cops.” But… “She was right. I mean, they wouldn’t have been able to do anything and—”
“We both knew she wasn’t going to call the cops even before you touched the lock. With the kind of extracurricular activities that Vivian Wayne has going on, the last thing your sexy neighbor would want is for uniformed cops to be poking around in her place.”
Chase leaned back against a nearby counter. “I told her that Wilde would put in a security system for her first thing in the morning.”
Merik’s smile flashed. “Now that is the kind of progress I am talking about! We’ll get some listening devices in there, and we’ll—”
“I know what we have to do.” Didn’t mean that he liked it.
“It’s just another case, man.” Merik backed away. “I get that she’s got pretty eyes and she bakes killer brownies, but you need to remember that even Ted Bundy had no trouble luring prey to him. Bad guys—and women—can be charming. They get you to see what they want you to see.” He headed for the door. “We both know she’s smart as hell. She’s also as dangerous as they come. Don’t forget that.” At the door, he paused and pointed at Chase. “You can’t believe anything she says. You’re playing her. She’s playing you.”
Merik’s expression darkened. “Do not pull that ‘huh’ BS with me. She is playing you. So stop feeling guilty, Boy Scout. Do the job. If you can’t do it…” A shrug. “I’ll step in. After all, she liked my dragon.”
Chase immediately stiffened. “No stepping in necessary. I’ve got her.”
“Be sure that you do. Be sure that she doesn’t have you.” With that, Merik yanked open the door—
And almost mowed right into Vivian.
Because she was standing in front of my apartment door.
“Thanks for bringing me the new lock, Merik,” Vivian said into silence that stretched a bit too long. “Tell me how much it cost, and I’ll be happy to pay you back.”
“Forget money. You can pay me with brownies,” he told her easily. “A pan that Chase doesn’t get to touch.” He looked back at Chase. “Don’t forget what I said, my friend,” Merik told him with a teasing smile that didn’t touch his hard gaze. “I look forward to seeing you play the game.”
You are such a bastard. “Good night, Merik. Appreciate you helping me get settled.”
Merik tossed his hand into the air and was gone. Chase had to admit, he was glad to see Merik vanish.
Vivian lingered in the doorway.
Chase stalked toward her. “Did something happen?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
But didn’t say more.
He looked down the hallway. Her apartment door was closed. “What? What is it? What—”
“I like conducting experiments. Variables are my thing.”
A smile wanted to pull at his lips. “I thought I was your variable.”
“You are.” Her gaze was on him. “That means I should see what happens.” Her shoulders squared. “You said you wanted me.”
He had said that. He probably should have kept his mouth shut, but that confession had been raw and honest.
“I want you, too. So let’s see what happens when we kiss.”
She stood onto her tip-toes. Her hands pressed to his shoulders. “Kiss me, Chase.”
He wasn’t a damn fool. His head lowered to hers. He took her mouth.