“Why the hell are you here?” Warren “War” Channing slapped his hands on the scarred bar top and glared at the SOB who’d just walked into his place. Last call had been over an hour ago, and he was damn well ready to call it a night. Even if he hadn’t been ready to close, there was no way he’d want to serve this particular jackass.
Dylan Nelson yanked at the too-tight collar of his fancy dress shirt. “We need to talk.”
“You need to get your ass out of my bar.” Did this jerk have any idea how much self-control War was exerting by not immediately jumping across the bar and plowing his fist into Dylan’s weak jaw? Knocking the guy out because he’d been the fool responsible for War’s breakup with—
“I want to hire you.”
“Get. The. Fuck. Out.” War couldn’t be clearer than that.
Beads of sweat dotted Dylan’s forehead. “Look, it’s about Rose—”
The expression on War’s face must have stopped him. Dylan gulped and backed up a step, but he didn’t leave.
Why was the dumbass staying?
“I get that you don’t like me,” Dylan rushed to say.
Oh, you think?
“You probably want to kick my ass.”
Absolutely. “The thought has crossed my mind a time or twenty.” And it sure was appealing right then. It was like the guy was just asking for it.
“Rose—she told me that you did PI work. That was how she first met you.”
I don’t want him saying her name. Because when Dylan said her name, it reminded War of just how bad the breakup with Rose had been.
He’d fallen fast and hard. Huge mistake. Major. But when it came to Rose Shadow, War hadn’t exactly been sane. Lust, blind need—they’d taken over for him. She’d gotten under his skin, addicted him, then wrecked his world. “I’m not talking about her,” he gritted out. Sure as hell not with you.
Dylan took another quick step back. “She’s in trouble,” he blurted.
War tensed. Then he leapt over the bar.
“Oh, Jesus.” Dylan ran a shaking hand over his face. “Please don’t break my nose. You know the business I’m in. I need my face. I’m a people person.”
War’s hands fisted.
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t desperate. Desperate. But Rose—”
“Rose said you were the best! That you kept your services low key, but you were incredible. When it came to tracking people who didn’t want to be found, no one was better. I need you.”
“It’s closing time. You are getting the hell out right now.” Even if War had to throw him out, an appealing option. War reached for Dylan, more than ready to mess up that perfectly pressed, too expensive shirt as he kicked the jerk out.
“She needs you!”
War’s hands froze. “I’m pretty sure I am the last man Rose needs. She made that clear.”
Dylan’s pale eyes darted over his face. “You’re mad at her?”
“We fucking broke up, moron. I’m sure you remember.”
Dylan licked his lips. “I, ah, thought she cleared up all of—no, I can see that she did not.” He winced. “Look, man, it’s bad. It has to be bad, or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Rose is in trouble? Hardly a newsflash. She’s always in trouble. The woman thrives on it.” She was a reporter. If she didn’t find trouble and tell the world about it, then Rose considered that a slow news day. His fingers clenched in the fabric of Dylan’s shirt. Hello, wrinkles. “Go find someone else who gives a shit—”
“She’s going to be arrested!” Dylan’s voice notched up and cracked.
War’s head cocked. “Say that again.” Because he’d liked what he heard.
“She’s going to be thrown in jail. Cops are looking for her. I got a tip—you know, I, um, I’m connected and get insider info. Part of my job and I—”
“Stop the rambling. Get back to Rose.”
“She’s tied to some serious crimes.” His pale blue eyes darted to and from War’s, as if he couldn’t quite manage to hold War’s stare. “But you know Rose, she is good at staying off-grid when she wants to do it.”
Oh, he knew Rose, all right. Biblically.
“She’s missing. The cops are looking for her, but you can find her before they do. And if you do…look, the station wants this handled properly.”
He was sure the news station wanted the situation handled in a way that was PR positive for them. And in a way that would give them the biggest scoop. “What’s she going to be charged with?” Vague curiosity. He figured it might be some B&E. Rose tended to be way overzealous on her cases—
War laughed and shoved Dylan away. “Good one.” He spun back toward the bar. “You’ve got five seconds to get out before I stop being nice.”
“Rose said you were never nice.”
A shrug. When they’d been dating, he didn’t remember Rose complaining about that particular trait. He figured she’d liked him a bit bad. Some women had a thing for danger. Rose was one of those women.
“Don’t you care at all?” Dylan demanded. “She’s being hunted. They will throw her in jail!”
A smile tugged at his lips as he imagined that sight. Beautiful, pampered, and spoiled Rose locked away…
He could almost hear the cell door swinging shut.
“I am authorized to pay you twenty grand.”
His ears perked up, and War swung back around. “Bullshit.”
“No, I am truly authorized to pay you that. I can transfer the money to your account right now.” Dylan smoothed a hand over his short, brown hair.
War shook his head. “I was calling bullshit on Rose committing murder. She’s many things, but the woman isn’t a killer.”
Dylan glanced around, as if he expected someone to lunge from the shadows. He didn’t need to worry. They were alone. “There’s…a lot of evidence,” he whispered.
“Speak up,” War ordered. “Can’t hear you.” Yes, he could. He just didn’t like this SOB. Personal reasons.
Louder, Dylan said, “We have to find her before the cops do. She’s probably scared and desperate.”
A desperate Rose. Interesting idea.
“You can find her before the authorities do. Then you and I can convince her to turn herself in. We can make sure she handles this the right way.”
He shouldn’t. War knew he shouldn’t, but this opportunity…it was just sounding too good to pass up. “Let me make sure I’ve got all of this straight.”
Dylan swallowed. He looked as if he might pass out.
“You are going to pay me twenty grand—right now—to track down my ex. When I find her, I get to have her ass locked up in jail?” That visual was so beautifully sweet.
“Yes, yes, that’s the basic plan…”
A slow smile curved War’s lips. “Then you just hired yourself a PI.”
Things could be worse.
Rose Shadow understood that she was in a bad situation. Definitely not ideal. But things could be worse.
Sure…she was suspected of murder. Multiple murders. Being a suspect had not been part of her original plan. And she was on the run. Again, not part of the big master plan. But…
She wasn’t in jail…yet. Wasn’t even in police custody. As long as she had her freedom, she still had a chance. This was the story of an absolute lifetime. She knew it. From the very beginning, her instincts had been screaming at her. Rose was not one to ignore screaming instincts. Well, generally, she didn’t ignore them.
The last time she had ignored her instincts, things had gone poorly. That experience had involved a devilishly handsome, ex special ops, alpha asshole named War. War. Seriously, as soon as she learned his nickname, she should have run.
She hadn’t. She’d…kinda hopped into bed with him. Mostly because she had a weakness for bad boys with muscles for days, deep rumbling voices…and smiles that had the tendency to make her panties melt.
She’d known War would be bad for her, but she’d still been pulled to him. They’d burned bright and hot…right up until the very, very bitter end.
If he didn’t currently hate her, she could certainly have used his sneaky skills to help her get out of her unfortunate situation. But the odds of War helping her—yeah, not so good. The man could hold a grudge. Then again, so could she.
She motioned toward the waitress for another round. At the waitress’s nod, Rose went back to studying the small restaurant. As far as she could tell, no one was giving her a second glance. She’d picked the shadowy corner deliberately. Her back was against the wall, so she could see everyone who entered the place, but the dim lightning meant that most folks there couldn’t see her. She had a meeting with one of her informants, and that meeting should have occurred thirty minutes ago.
Billy was late. Only Billy was never late. Her stomach tightened. He was one of the few people she trusted in the area. He’d promised to help her find some temporary housing while she worked the case. But with him being a no-show…
Clink. “Anything else?” The waitress had set the beer bottle down on the table.
Rose slid a twenty toward her. “Yeah. Is there a back way out of this place?”
With Billy being a no-show, she had to figure that something had come up. That meant their meeting spot could have been compromised. If it was compromised, she needed to find a way to slip out, fast.
The twenty vanished. “Sure thing. Go through that red door. Take a left, and you’ll be out back in thirty seconds.”
The waitress turned to walk away.
Once more, Rose’s gaze swept around the old restaurant. Darted toward the—
A familiar figure had just slipped through the entrance doors. A big, muscled guy. Six-foot-three inches and two hundred pounds of corded strength. Rose knew all of these stats not because she was magically awesome at looking at a person and guessing…but because she knew him.
As if her thoughts had summoned him, War Channing stood inside the old restaurant. It was a small, out-of-the-way spot. Not on the main stretch of the beach, so it wasn’t a place that most tourists would visit. More for locals. War was a local, so perhaps it was a coincidence that he was there…
But as she studied him, Rose realized his body was hard with tension, and he seemed to be inspecting every face in that place. He was looking for someone, and the sinking sensation in Rose’s stomach told her that someone…it’s me.
No, it wasn’t a coincidence that War was there. He was hunting—her.
She eased out a slow breath. Her hand reached up to make certain that her wig was still in place. Tonight, she was blonde. Blonde and in the shadows and, surely, he wouldn’t be able to recognize her.
Get the hell out.
She eased from her chair. His gaze was currently on a woman who sat at the bar. The woman’s body shape was similar to Rose’s, and her dark hair was the color Rose usually sported. He seemed focused on that woman, so this was the perfect time for Rose to tip-toe out of there. Holding her breath, she sidled toward the red door. She pushed it open. Took a left.
Thirty seconds. Just thirty seconds and I will be free.
When she shoved open the back door, the scent of garbage hit her, and Rose’s nose wrinkled. But she hurriedly picked up her pace and shimmied around the side of the building so that she could get to her—
“Well, well. Funny running into you here.”
She nearly ran straight into War’s massive chest.
He was standing between her and the parking lot, and he should have still been inside, damn him. How the hell had he moved so fast?
But Rose pasted a bright smile on her face. There wasn’t much light on that side of the building. Most of the illumination came from the moon and the stars. “War!” Did that sound welcoming enough? “How are you?” She tried to sound normal. As if she hadn’t been trying to run from him.
“Pretty good. Can’t complain.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Aw, who the hell am I kidding? Right now, I am fucking fabulous.”
Uh, oh. “That’s great. Happy to hear that. Wonderful for you.” She backed up a step. Going through War wasn’t an option. He was an immovable force who substantially outweighed and outmuscled her. But running from him in the opposite direction?
She had been on the track team in high school. All-state, baby. She just needed a moment for him to be distracted. A few precious seconds that would give her a head start, and then she’d be gone.
“The blonde hair is new,” he noted.
Indeed, it was. New and temporary.
“Got to know, Rose…do blondes have more fun?”
Considering that she was having an extremely shitty time, the answer would be a resounding no. “So far, so good.” She cleared her throat. “What brings you to Finch’s tonight?” Finch’s…the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that should have been safe.
“I was looking for you, sweetheart.”
Two things happened right then. One, her spine snapped straight. I was looking for you. She took those words as the threat that they were. And two, her heart started a triple-time rhythm. He’d just said “sweetheart” in that low, rough, and ever-so-sexy way of his. The way he’d used to say it when he was thrusting deep inside her.
She would be lying if she said he wasn’t the best lover she’d ever had. He left the others in the dust.
She would also be lying if she said she wanted to ever get back with him again. She didn’t. War was trouble and pain. “Do not call me that.” So, yes, those were the words she snarled back at him. “Don’t use endearments that we both know you don’t mean.”
His head tilted to the left. His “thoughtful” pose. He had several different poses. Once upon a time, she’d cared deeply for him, so she’d learned his moves. His tells. When his head cocked to the left, he was thinking about something. When his head cocked to the right, it was game on. War was about to launch an attack.
He wasn’t about to attack—yet—so she had a few more moments to figure out her escape.
“Rose, you sound bitter. If I didn’t know better, I would think the breakup wasn’t your idea—”
“Wasn’t my—” Her nostrils flared, and she caught herself right before she lunged for him. No, going toward him would be a mistake. She needed to get away. But she also couldn’t let this point pass. Rose just didn’t have it in her. “I’m not the one who was an asshole with trust issues. That would be you.” Bam. Missile delivered.
His shoulders rolled back. The rolled back shoulders meant War was getting angry. Considering that Rose was more than a little angry herself, she didn’t care.
“And I’m not the one who made out with someone else.” War took a gliding step forward. He was big, but for all of his size, the man could sure move softly.
Because she was watching his sneaky movements, it took a moment for his words to register and when they did, her jaw dropped. She snapped it back up and fired, “Dylan kissed me. I didn’t kiss him. And I shoved him back and told him that if he ever did that crap again, I would have a sexual harassment case filed against him.”
He was stunned. Thrown off balance. Good. This was her chance. Tears filled her eyes because what she was saying was true and because she was desperate, and this was her only chance. “You never gave me an opportunity to explain. You just acted. You raged. You accused. What about a little trust, War? A little faith? Would that have been too much to ask?” She whirled away from him and hunched her shoulders.
God, she still hurt. This man had gotten to her. Gotten past the guard that she used to keep everyone else out. Rose knew the score in this world. Only the tough survived. Trust family, no one else. Her mantra. But…
War had been different.
Or maybe she’d just wanted him to be different.
“Rose…” His hand curled around her shoulder. He was creeping closer and closer. This was it. Her chance to get away. And her chance to get a little payback. All in one lovely movement.
Leave me, will you? Gonna break my heart in a thousand pieces?
Her right foot angled back. With big guys like War, it was all a matter of…balance. Or rather, making him lose his balance.
“Are you telling me the truth?” he whispered.
She angled her body. “War…” Her head turned toward him just the faintest bit.
As he leaned his body toward hers…she struck. Her right foot swept hard against his ankle, and the mighty War went down with a bellow. “Go screw yourself,” she snapped at him. Then she was off. Racing as fast as she could through the night. When she wanted to be fast…
Rose was fast.
If tears fell as she ran away, at least War couldn’t see them.
He’d been played by a master. War jumped up. She’d pushed him into a stinking pile of garbage, and he knew that landing spot had been deliberate. Rose was one strategic plotter. He raked God-knew-what off his shoulder and bellowed, “Rose!”
She didn’t slow down. Snarling, he gave chase. His feet pounded over the ground as he flew after her. She was close to a waiting Jeep. Not her car. She always drove a convertible and it was currently sitting in her garage, but as he watched, Rose jumped into the Jeep and had the engine snarling to life. She whipped that vehicle into reverse, and gravel flew from beneath the tires. She started to shoot it forward.
War leapt into her path. His hands flew up. “Stop!” She might shove him into a pile of stinking garbage and rotting food, but he didn’t think she’d run him down.
The Jeep’s headlights nearly blinded him.
“It’s over, Rose,” he yelled. She could hear him. The doors and roof of the Jeep had been removed. It was a beach town, and most of the Jeeps in the area looked that way. “I’m turning you in.”
She revved the engine. “Get out of the way.”
“No. You’ll have to go through me because I am not moving.” And she wouldn’t do it. She’d give in. She’d turn off the Jeep. Get out. Maybe rage at him again. But then he’d take that ever so sweet ass of hers to jail and laugh while she made her frantic explanations to the cops and—
The wheels spun. Gravel spit into the air. And the Jeep flew back. She reversed through the lot like a champ as he gaped after her. Too late, he realized she was heading for the little hill that wasn’t an exit, but a place that would still allow her to access the road. He surged after her, but by then, she had too much of a lead on him. With a happy little honk of her horn—a sound he was ninety-nine percent sure meant screw you—she whipped onto the street and raced away from him.
His breath was heaving as he ran to the edge of the road and glowered after her…after her and after the license plate that he could see illuminated thanks to the lights on the back of the Jeep.
His hands slapped against his thighs. A smile stretched across his face. Oh, sweetheart, you can run, but I will find you.
Once he started a hunt, he never stopped.
She parked the Jeep in the back of the motel so that it would be hidden from anyone passing by on the road. Before going back to her little no-tell-motel, Rose had swung by Billy’s place, hoping against hope that he would be there.
The house had been deserted.
So she’d been forced to return to her current lodging spot. Not directly on the beach, but rather hidden on a back bay—the spot would have to do. For now.
She couldn’t leave the area. Not until she’d finished her job. Or until the job finished her. A grim possibility considering her last few days.
Sticking to the shadows, Rose made her way to room number one-oh-four. The light near the door flickered and pulsed to reveal the chipped wood along the frame. This place was far different from her beloved condo with its gulf view, and that was exactly the reason she’d taken refuge there. Until it was safe, she had to stay under the radar.
Her hand lifted for the door. She swiped the key and then slipped inside. The air conditioner was humming, even though she’d tried seven times to turn the thing off before she’d left, and the room was absolutely icy. The bored clerk at the front desk had told her he’d get a repairman in tomorrow. She’d hoped to be gone by that point.
Rose yanked off the blonde wig and tossed it on the little table that she knew waited close to the door. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders, and the pressure she’d felt on her head immediately eased. Her hand reached to the right as she prepared to flip on the light—
“Took you long enough to come inside,” a low, growling voice said from the darkness.
A scream tore from Rose’s throat, and she immediately grabbed the door to fly back outside. Terror clawed at her, and all she could think was…he found me. She’d tried so hard, but he’d found her. She yanked open the door, but a powerful hand shoved it closed. In the next breath, he’d spun her around to face him.
Rose immediately went to knee the intruder in the groin, but he moved too fast. He shoved one of his legs between hers as his hands clamped around her waist. “Not happening.” Another dark growl. Angry. Rough and—
She froze with her hands hanging in the air. Her intent had been to dig her thumbs into his eyes. A vicious move, yes, but when times were desperate, one did vicious things to stay alive.
Except…her attacker wasn’t the man she’d thought. “War?” His name emerged as a croak.
“Who the fuck else would it be?”
Who else? Oh, just the man who wanted her dead. The killer she was both hunting for and hiding from. Before she could respond, there was a frantic knock on the door behind her.
“Hey! What in the hell is happening in there?” A thick drawl coated the words. “Ya’ll okay?”
War leaned in close to her. The light was still off, so she couldn’t see him, but she could feel him all around her. His breath blew over her cheek as he whispered, “Tell the nice man that you’re fine.”
“I don’t feel fine,” she whispered right back. “How about I tell him that? How about I tell him that some psycho broke into my motel room?”
A low, amused chuckle slipped from War. “Do it. Then he can call the cops. I’m sure you’d love that.”
No, she’d hate it. He knew that, damn him. War had just called her bluff. “I’m fine!” Rose called back to the would-be rescuer on the other side of the door. “Thanks for checking. Sorry to be so loud!”
Another rap pounded against the door. “You screamed.” A pause. “You alone in there?”
He obviously thought she was being threatened, and he was determined to help. Nice to know there were some good people in the world. But if this good person didn’t leave soon, she was going to have serious trouble on her hands.
“My boyfriend is here,” she shouted back. A shout because War was close, and she thought yelling in his ear might just get the man to back up. He didn’t, so she added, just as loudly, “We got a little carried away! Sorry!” Keep going, would-be hero. Nothing to see here.
Rose thought she heard a grunt then the guy groused, “Keep that shit down. People are sleeping.” A few moments later, Rose heard a door slam. The door on the right. Great. He was staying in the room that connected to hers.
“You can back away now,” Rose informed War crisply.
“If I back away, you might try to run.”
That had been precisely her plan.
“So, first, how about you give me the keys—the key to the room and the keys to the Jeep—then we’ll talk about backing away.”
She turned her right hand over.
He swiped the keys. “Thank you.”
Fuck you. She bit back the retort.
“Were you going for my eyes, Rose? Such a dirty move.”
“You’re the one who taught me that move.” When he’d been adamant that she learn how to defend herself. Only she’d never thought that she’d have to defend herself from him. Another thing she’d been wrong about.
“I taught you lots of dirty things.” His voice had taken on a rougher, more sensual edge.
Even in the dark, her eyes narrowed. He wanted to be cocky? Wanted to go there? “I am pretty sure I taught you a thing or twenty, too, stud.”
A rumble of laughter broke from him. His body pressed closer to her.
Alarm skittered through her. “Get off me.”
“I’m not on you. I’m near you. I’m in front of you. Definitely not on you.”
She wanted to scream, but if she did that, her helpful neighbor would probably rush back over. Then she’d have to deal with that whole bit of business again. “War…”
“Turn on the lights. Let’s talk about this like civilized people.”
“But you know I’ve never been particularly civilized. I think that was one of your issues with me.”
Her breath caught. “Sometimes, I liked it.” Particularly in bed. Out of bed… “It was only when you became too much of an ass that I had issues.”
His hand lifted. She felt it rise, felt the shift in the air, and then heard the click as he flipped on the lights. Her eyes closed and opened quickly, twice, three times, as she adjusted to the flood of illumination.
He was right in front of her. Just as tall, dark, and dangerously handsome as always. His skin was golden from all the time he spent in the sun. His hair was dark and thick, shoving back from his forehead. His face was planes and angles—sexy and strong. Hard jaw. Lickable lips. And eyes so very deep. His eyes could be a warm, sensual brown, or they could flash with ice-cold darkness, all depending on his mood. Right then, his eyes were…
She swallowed. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Take that sweet ass to jail.” He tucked her keys in his back pocket. Then his hands rose and pressed to the door behind her, caging her between his body and the wood. “You’re in trouble, sweetheart.”
“Don’t call me that.” Her heart was pounding too fast again. Actually, her heart had been racing ever since she’d found him waiting in her room. Just how had he found her in that motel, anyway? “Don’t use words that you don’t mean. I’m not dear to you so don’t use an endearment.”
“Fair enough.” He gave her a half smile. The same smile that had once made her heart jump.
Of course, her crazy heart still jumped.
“I have something else I was hoping to use on you, anyway.” His gaze swept over her face. “How are you still this beautiful?” His voice had turned into a rasp. All sensual and rough. “You know, I think I almost missed you.”
She had missed him. She’d cried over the jerk. Had to bury her sorrows in her favorite cookie dough ice cream. Then she’d made herself move the hell on. If he didn’t trust her, if he didn’t want to fight for what they had, if he didn’t have faith in them…the man didn’t deserve her or her pain.
“Almost,” War continued as he finally dropped his hands and took a step away from her. “Right up until the moment when you shoved me into a pile of garbage. Not a cool move, sweet—Rose.”
Her chin notched up. “If you’re expecting an apology, you have the wrong woman.” He didn’t get it. She was fighting for her life. If she had to fight dirty, so be it. “You don’t understand what is happening here. And I don’t even understand why you are here!”
“Oh, that’s simple. I’m here…because I’m hunting you.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. She’d feared that would be the case.
“I was hired to hunt you. To find you. To turn you over to the cops.”
Frantic, Rose shook her head. “No, no, please, War, give me a chance to explain!” Talk about a nightmare situation. “It’s not what you think! I’m not—”
“If you’re expecting me to believe your lies, you have the wrong man.”
Ice covered her heart. She’d never lied to him.
His hand reached behind his back.
“Remember when I said I had something else I planned to use on you?”
Fear flooded through her. “War, don’t.”
War lifted the handcuffs he’d just pulled out. “Guess what? I think these are going to fit you perfectly.”